Mass Appeal | Graphic Novels Spotlight 2019

Comics continue redefining boundaries, tackling complex social issues, and educating readers, even as they entertain.

Comic books—long scorned by highbrow readers, banned from library summer reading programs, and generally hidden away among more serious-looking works—are in the midst of a heyday. As reported in LJ’s 2018 Graphic Novel survey (LJ 12/18; ow.ly/f2xM30oJQZm), to which 400 public librarians throughout the country and Canada responded, nearly two-thirds of the libraries sampled experienced an overall increase in graphic novel circulation in 2018, with 13 percent stating that print circulation spiked significantly. While 96 percent of respondents said they carry superhero titles in print and 88 percent in digital, general fiction trailed close behind at 92 percent and 81 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, nonfiction is a rising force.

Sales are also skyrocketing. According to a recent joint report by ICv2’s Milton Griepp and Comichron’s John Jackson Miller, comics and graphic novel sales in the United States and Canada reached an astounding $1.095 billion in 2018, an $80 million increase from 2017. Already this year sees a continuation of such growth, no doubt aided by smash-hit screen adaptations such as Ms. Marvel, Aquaman, and the Avengers making comics characters household names, and alternative and literary works topping book club lists and winning prestigious awards usually reserved for traditional prose. This year, Nora Krug’s Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home (Scribner) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography and Nick Drasno’s Sabrina (Drawn & Quarterly [D&Q]) was short-listed for the coveted Man Booker Prize.

Circulation among digital collections rose 32 percent in 2018 from 2017, asserts hoopla Digital’s product marketing lead of comics and graphic novels Ray Barry, who predicts numbers will continue to climb in 2019. OverDrive’s public relations specialist Andi Barnett cites a 50 percent jump in circulating titles in 2018, expanding to 56 percent in 2019 so far. "We’ve seen strong growth of female-led and female-starring comics and an effort for inclusion through LGBTQ+ characters, women, people of color, and emotionally deeper stories," says Barnett. Iron Circus Comics founder and publisher C. Spike Trotman forecasts that "2019 [will] be about LGBTQ rights, the struggles of black Americans, [and] the struggles of trans Americans."

Says BOOM! Studios VP of marketing Arune Singh, "a greater diversity of voices behind the page allows for more representational stories and a more honest reflection of the world around us." Eva Volin, supervising children’s librarian, Alameda Free Library, CA, and communication committee member of the American Library Association’s Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table (GNCRT) concurs, but adds that "while the conversations about diversity, #OwnVoices, and inclusion are happening, it will take a little longer to reach critical mass."

 

Superheroes & Antiheroes

Long gone are the days of straightforward clashes between good and evil in comics. Since the 1986 releases of Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, readers have flocked to morally ambiguous, flawed characters. This ethical gray zone is further explored in upcoming September releases from the newly launched TKO Studios, featuring big-name authors such as Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist) and Jeff Lemire (Black Hammer). The Banks, from Gay and artist Ming Doyle (Constantine: The Hellblazer), follows an investment banker who resists joining her mother and grandmother in a life of crime as master thieves until she’s presented with an offer she can’t refuse. In the action-packed Pound for Pound, by writer Natalie ­Chaidez (former showrunner, Queen of the South) and artist Andy Belanger (Southern Cross), a female MMA athlete angers the local gang and must fight her way across the U.S.-Mexico border to save her sister.

From Valiant Comics, Eisner Award–nominated writer Joshua Dysart, joined by artist CAFU and others, returns with The Life and Death of Toyo Harada (Nov.), a series opener that sees the eponymous CEO and powerful psiot (a human subspecie with heightened psychic abilities) with a target on his head and an army of formidable foes, but that won’t stop his evil (or benevolent?) plan to save humanity from itself. Bloodshot: The Definitive Edition (Jul.), by writers Duane Swierczynski and Matt Kindt, with artist Manuel Garcia and others, tells of a soldier killed in the line of duty who is resurrected as the perfect murdering machine by a shadowy program run by private military contractors. (The screen adaptation arrives in theaters in 2020, with Vin Diesel as Bloodshot.)

Debuting this past January, DC Comics’ Wonder Comics line, curated by fan-favorite Brian Michael Bendis, this fall introduces a universe-changing hero in Naomi (Oct.), written by Bendis and David F. Walker and illustrated by rising star Jamal Campbell. In late 2019, DC’s Young Animal imprint for mature readers (curated by Umbrella Academy’s Gerard Way), releases Far Sector, a fresh entry in the Green Lantern mythos also illustrated by Campbell and penned by three-time Hugo Award winner N.K. Jemisin (Broken Earth) in her comics debut. It’s a clash of the multiverse when DC and Watchmen characters team up to confront Doctor Manhattan in Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock (Oct.), a sequel to the classic Watchmen.

In the Marvel Universe, another beloved hero gets a significant new storyline in Nick Spencer and others’ fourth volume of the "Amazing Spider-Man" series. Hunted (Aug.) sees Kraven the Hunter rounding up animal-themed superhumans; his sights set on Spider-Man to complete his collection. And in the kingdom of Wakanda, King T’Challa is MIA, requiring his tech-savvy sister Shuri to abandon the laboratory in order to take up the mantle of Black Panther in Shuri, Vol. 2 (Oct.), written by up-and-comer Vita Ayala, with artist Paul Davidson.

 

Drawn to Life: Memoir & Biography

Nonfiction and biographical comics consistently provide some of the highest crossover appeal for noncomics readers. Graphic memoirs and biographies are also often among the breakout titles of the year. Consider Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do (ComicArts: Abrams), which won a 2018 American Book Award. For Barry, this "is a testament to the rise of the everyday superhero." Singh agrees, stating that "readers are signaling to us that true stories and biographies represented in the graphic form resonate as much or even more than their prose counterparts."

With this in mind, BOOM! Studios offers Cecil Castellucci’s Girl on Film (Nov.), a deeply personal account of the novelist and comic book writer’s artistic development. Expanding its "Graphic Medicine" series, Pennsylvania State University Press presents the English translation of Us Two Together (Oct.), a gorgeously illustrated memoir by Belgian artist Eva Cardon, aka Ephameron, depicting her father’s slow decline into early onset dementia. With Pittsburgh (New York Review Comics [NYRC], Sept.), Frank Santoro investigates the source of domestic discord, as his parents’ once-loving marriage crumbles and they stop talking to each other, despite working in close proximity. Debut author Travis Dandro’s King of King Court (D&Q, Aug.) recounts from a child’s perspective the ripple effects of family trauma, addiction, and abuse, while Austrian creator Ulli Lust continues the narrative begun in 2013’s Ignatz Award–winningToday Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life with How I Tried To Be a Good Person (Fantagraphics, Jul.), drawing on her years as a young anarchist in Vienna and her tumultuous love triangle with two men.

Continued interest in women’s experiences as brought to light by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements is ­exemplified in Erin ­Williams’s ­ Commute: An Illustrated Memoir of ­Female Shame (­ComicArts: Abrams, Oct.), which relates unwanted encounters on the author’s daily commute to highlight the larger struggle faced by women everywhere. The anthology Drawing Power: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival (ComicArts: Abrams, Sept.), edited by creator Diane Noomin, features poignant accounts by more than 60 female creators, including Emil Ferris, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and Liana Finck. Spotlighting women’s achievements, Alice Milani offers Marie Curie: A Life of Discovery (Graphic Universe, Aug.; see review, LJ 6/19, p. 98), giving the French Polish physicist and chemist—and only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences—a ­beautifully illustrated homage.

In August, NBM adds to its "Comics Biographies" series with Albert Einstein: The Poetry of the Real by Spanish artist Manuel García Iglesias and French writer Marwan Kahil, and Koren Shadmi bringsTwilight Zone creator Rod Serling to life in The Twilight Man (Humanoids, Oct.). Jim ­Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (Feynman) pair up again for Hawking (First Second, Sept.; Xpress Reviews, 4/12/19), tracing Stephen Hawking’s early education, ALS diagnosis, and illustrious career as a theoretical physicist, pop-culture icon, and disability rights advocate.

 

Telling the Truth: Graphic Nonfiction

Comics excel at condensing large amounts of information into manageable chunks, making the material accessible but no less hard-hitting. According to Microcosm publicity director and assistant editor Cynthia Marts, "The rising trend we’ve seen in quite a few of our genres, including [Reid Chancellor’s] Hardcore Anxiety: A Graphic Guide to Punk Rock and Mental Health (Sept.), has been honest personal accounts and advice about mental health and modern self care.... [This] encourages noncomics readers to give graphic ­storytelling a chance."

Appropriately, London-based Icon Books releases Gender: A Graphic Guide (Nov.), in which author Meg-John Barker and illustrator Jules Scheele take an intersectional approach to discussing shifting notions of femininity and masculinity. The success with [our] previous graphic guides, says Icon editor Kiera Jamison, "reflects a broader interest in and acceptance of LGBTQ narratives...[and is] a direction we aim to develop even more in the years to come." In Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration (First Second, Oct.), economist Bryan Caplan, with artist Zack Weinersmith ( Soonish), outlines his bold stance on how opening all borders could bolster the economy and save humanity. With Amazing Decisions: The Illustrated Guide to Improving Business Deals and Family Meals (Farrar, Jul.), artwork by Matt R. Trower, behavioral economist Dan Ariely argues that decision-making skills can be honed to help achieve optimal outcomes. Dutch writer/illustrator Margaret de Heer (­Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics) further tackles some of life’s biggest questions (how do you heal a broken heart, and once you’ve found love, how do you keep it?) in Love: A ­Discovery in Comics (NBM, Jun.).

Fresh on the heels of Todd Douglas Miller’s much-­anticipated documentary Apollo 11 is Jonathan Fetter-Vorm’s Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight (Hill and Wang: Farrar, Jun.), marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing through a retelling of Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s historic mission. And military and history buffs will appreciate the comprehensive World War II narrative D-Day: Storming Fortress Europe (Osprey: Bloomsbury, Sept.). This first volume in the new "Underfire" series, by authors Jack Chambers and Erik Hendrix and artist Esteve Polls, reimagines the events of the Longest Day, from the Normandy Beach landing to the bloody struggle to establish a bridgehead. The attractive, oversized Sons of Chaos (IDW, Jun.), from Chris Jaymes and Ale Aragon, meanwhile, sheds light on the Greek War of Independence—a conflict that may be less widely known but nevertheless was hugely influential in world history.

 

Limitless Possibilities: Fictional Tales

Notable 2019 fiction releases include works by some of comics’ most celebrated creators. In September, master cartoonist Chris Ware powerfully weaves the lives of three disparate characters in the long-awaited Rusty Brown (Pantheon), while Kevin Huizenga’s Glenn Ganges obsesses about life and the nature of time over the course of a sleepless night in The River at Night (D&Q). Simon ­Hanselmann’s lovably misanthropic, green-skinned witch Megg and her stoned cat buddy Mogg continue their adventures in Bad Gateway (Fantagraphics, Jun.). Two forthcoming titles from Simon & Schuster’s Gallery 13 imprint include the prolific Lemire’s Frogcatchers (Sept.), a haunting tale in which a man wakes up in a strange room with no recollection of how he got there. Inspired by real events, Two Dead (Nov.) delivers a dark crime story set in the American South post–World War II, penned by Van Jensen and drawn to moody perfection by the National Book Award–winning Nate Powell (March trilogy).

For Julia Pohl-Miranda, D&Q’s marketing director, "indie publishers like D&Q and Fantagraphics are willing to explore the possibilities of adult comics in ways that the major corporate publishers are not, to produce outside the box hits." Among her company’s not-to-be-missed 2019 releases are Hot Comb (Jun.), a vibrant debut short story collection by Ebony Flowers, illuminating black women’s experiences through the lens of black hair, culture, and identity, and Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow (Oct.), which examines the uncertainty of the future during troubled political times. Two downtrodden, lonely people who gradually learn to trust each other and open up emotionally are the center of Joel Orff’s Twice Shy (Alternative Comics, Sept.), whereas Archie Bongiovanni’s Grease Bats (BOOM! Studios, Sept.) follows Andy, a genderqueer trans individual, and their best friend Scout, a lesbian who still pines for her ex from
years ago.

Although the lines between general and genre fiction are becoming increasingly blurred, some titles are distinctly aligned with a category. From filmmaker Darcy Van Poelgeest and Angoulême-nominated artist Ian Bertram, the epic and decidedly dystopian sf Little Bird: The Fight for Elder’s Hope (Image, Oct.) follows a young resistance fighter trying to bring down an oppressive American Empire, save her people, and carve out her own identity. In Lemire and Gabriel Walta’s Sentient (TKO, Sept.), the adults on the USS Montgomery are dead and the children are left in the care of the ship’s artificial intelligence, VALERIE. November sees Iron Circus Comics bring a popular, long-running erotic webcomic to print with Sylvan Migdal’s The Complete Curvy. And the ultimate sf world of Replicants and Spinners is revisited in Blade Runner, Vol. 1 (Titan Comics, Nov.), a canon sequel to the original 1982 film, cowritten by Mike Johnson and Michael Green, screenwriter for Blade Runner 2049, with art by Andres Guinaldo.

Horror is represented by Blossom 666 (Archie Comics, Nov.), Cullen Bunn and Laura Braga’s creepy reinvention of Riverdale’s least favorite red-headed twins, Cheryl and Jason Blossom. The protagonist in Celine Loup’s The Man Who Came Down the Attic Stairs (Archaia: BOOM!, Sept.) faces a more realistic form of terror as she struggles to get her bearings after the birth of her child. Getting lots of in-house love and with author appearances slated for this year’s American Library Association annual conference is Ezra Claytan Daniels and Ben Passmore’s Afrofuturistic BTTM FDRS (Fantagraphics, Jun.). This striking neon work of body horror and urban gentrification "is greater than the sum of its parts, [d]iscuss[ing] heavy sociopolitical [concepts] through the lens of sci-fi…while maintaining a strong message," says ­Jacquelene Cohen, Fantagraphics’s executive director of marketing, publicity, and promotions.

Timeless Translations

French-language comics (bandes dessinées) and other European titles, translated for the American market, continue to lend unique texture to the global comics scene. Top fall French-to-English selections include Helene ­Aldeguer’s After the Spring: A Story of Tunisian Youth (IDW, Oct.), which follows four twentysomethings trying to make a life for themselves in the political tumult following the Arab Spring. And in The Tenderness of Stones (NYRC, Sept.), Marion Fayolle creates a surreal allegory for illness, death, and the grieving process as a father’s body parts are hauled off one at a time until there is nothing left. Dead Reckoning, an imprint of the Naval Institute Press, will publish in September Fabien Nury’s international best seller Once Upon a Time in France, with art by Sylvain Vallee, shedding light on the complicated case of Romanian Jew Joseph Joanovici, who immigrated to 1920s France and became one of the richest people in Europe. When the Germans occupy his country, he plays both sides as a Nazi collaborator and a member of the French Resistance in an attempt to keep his family safe. "It’s everything I could want in an epic drama and is a wonderful addition to the growing canon of literary graphic novels," notes Dead Reckoning’s graphic novel lead Gary Thompson.

Classics and Adaptations

Graphic adaptations serve the dual purpose of introducing new generations of readers to the classics, while also drawing in fans of the original work who may not read comics, resulting in the success of titles such as Damian Duffy and John Jennings’s adaptation of Octavia Butler’s sf masterpieces Kindred (LJ 4/1/17) and The Parable of the Sower , due out in January 2020. (See the Q&A with Jennings, LJ 6/19, p. 42). Illustrator Odyr puts his distinctive visual mark on George Orwell’s political fable Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel (Houghton Harcourt, Sept.), while Kristina Gehrmann adapts and illustrates The Jungle (Penguin Random House, Jul.), Upton Sinclair’s 1905 influential critique of the early 20th-century meat-packing industry. NYRC is working hard to preserve comics history. "We’re interested in bringing back classic and great books from the past that have been forgotten," says NYRC publicist Nicholas During. "It seems that outside of Peanuts and Krazy Kat, there isn’t much memory of past artists in the comics community." Look for two collections of classic mid-20th-century comics from the publisher in 2019: William Gropper’s Alay-Oop (Jun.; see review, LJ 6/19, p. 96) and ­Ogden Whitney’s Return to Romance (Oct.).

 

Serial Appeal: Manga

Haida manga, an art form influenced by North Pacific indigenous culture, is gorgeously represented by artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas in Carpe Fin: A Haida Manga (Douglas & McIntyre, Sept.), in which residents of a small fishing village are cut off from their food supply by an oil spill and must figure out how to feed themselves. According to Mark Gabriel de Vera, VIZ senior publishing sales manager, "Serialized manga is without a doubt the bread and butter of the manga industry…. Longer serialized stories allow for more character development, twists and turns." This summer, VIZ will introduce several notable manga series to North American readers, including Tomohito Oda’s Komi Can't Communicate, Vol. 1. (Jun.), which tells of a shy young woman on a mission to make 100 friends. Summer highlights from manga publisher Yen Press include Skull-Face Bookseller Honda-San, Vol. 1 (Jul.), delivering author Honda’s accounts of working in a Japanese bookstore, and Goblin Slayer: Brand New Day, Vol. 1 (Jul.), Kumo Kagyu and artists Masahiro Ikeno and Noboru Kannatuki’s spin-off of the popular titular series. The first of a two-volume crime noir series, Ryuko , Vol. 1 (Titan Comics/Hard Case Crime, Jul.), brings the powerful female yakuza member home from the Middle East to investigate a threat to her own family, drawn by author Eldo Yoshimizu to evoke classic film noir.

As sociopolitical tensions soar and climate patterns shift, readers’ preferences have moved beyond simple narratives of good vs. evil, hero vs. villain, and the comics landscape reflects this. "A focus on the challenges of our time will prevail for the foreseeable future," predicts Chloe Ramos-Peterson, library market sales representative, Image Comics. "People want positive change on an institutional level." In 2019 and beyond, comics rise to the challenge. 

 

Going Graphic: Below are the titles mentioned in this article. Translations are denoted by (Tr.)

 


Ingrid Bohnenkamp is Branch Manager, Park Central Branch Library, Springfield, MO. She has worked at libraries in Columbia, MO, and Portland, ME, and been an ardent comics reader since she first discovered Calvin and Hobbes in the newspaper. But it was Guy Davis–era B.P.R.D. that turned her into an irreversible fan

 

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