Picture This! | Graphic Novels Preview 2020

Unshackled from its humble five-cent ­origins, the comic book has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon, inspiring innovative content across multiple media steeped in both decades-old properties and freshly conceived concepts.


Unshackled from its humble five-cent ­origins, the comic book has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon, inspiring innovative content across multiple media steeped in both decades-old properties and freshly conceived concepts. Such an unprecedented surge in creativity and market penetration of graphic works, generating billions of dollars in revenue, promises that the format remains enticing for new artists bold and yearning for expression. Yet might it also ­indicate an arrival of peak comics? 

Certainly evidence points to a higher profile for graphic works now more than ever before. LJ Prepub Alert editor Barbara ­Hoffert included the format for the first time this year in her annual materials study, “Materially Different” (LJ 2/20), citing comics, graphic novels, and manga as jointly ranking seventh in Baker & Taylor’s fiction print sales for U.S. public libraries. In the digital sphere, Ray Barry, comics lead, hoopla digital, reports “enormous growth—since 2017, comics circulation on hoopla digital has increased by 45 percent.” Similarly, Andi Barnett, public relations publicist, OverDrive, confirms that “libraries in the OverDrive network saw circulation of graphic novels, comics, and manga rise 61 percent in 2019 over 2018, on top of the 57 percent jump in 2018 from 2017.”

Considering the state of comics today, Terry Nantier, publisher, NBM, says, “comics, a medium unto itself, is able to do everything any other medium can do.” For Barry, “this is just the tip of the iceberg for comics. The streaming era has kicked open the door for comics.... This audience wants to know the roots of the stories they’re binge-watching and -reading.” Alex Segura, copresident, Archie Comics, concurs: “We’re at a point where it feels like there are endless great stories from strong, varied voices, which is wonderful to see. [Creators] can get their books out there without having to jump through so many hoops. If traditional publishing doesn’t work, you can run a Kickstarter or self-publish, for example.”

Predicting the new growth as continuing, Julia Pohl-­Miranda, marketing director, Drawn & Quarterly (D&Q), states that “comics are seen now as a medium rather than a genre. Readers are glad for comics that are serious, sad, funny, smart, dumb. If TV series or prose books can do all of that, why not comics, too?” For Arune Singh, vice president of marketing, BOOM! Studios, “the power of comics as a medium is its unique accessibility and experience for readers of every age and background, unrivaled by any other medium. With publishers continuing to embrace increasingly diverse voices and genres, there will never be a reason for folks to walk away from comics—instead, there will be more reasons to invest in new comic book journeys.” 


New creators, imprints, and publishers are bursting on to the comics scene faster than superteams swarming a dastardly villain. Attesting to the upward trend of expanding comics subgenres, Chloe Ramos-Peterson, library market sales representative, Image Comics, says that “although there are readers who will always love superheroes, the playing field in American comics seems to be finally maturing...as authors and artists feel increasingly free to tackle topics not previously explored in mainstream Western publishing.” Two cases in point and highly anticipated spring debuts include British artist/writer Steven Appleby’s Dragman (Metropolitan: Holt, Apr.; see ­review, p. 75), and cartoonist Emei Burell’s We Served the People (Archaia: BOOM!; May). Appleby’s tale centers on Augustus Crimp, who discovers he can literally fly but only while wearing a dress, setting him on a life adventure of self-discovery. Burell’s account shares the stirring story of her mother’s formative years as one of the few city women driving trucks in rural China during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. 

This summer, First Second launches its timely new nonfiction line, World Citizen, promoting works of civic involvement and media literacy. The imprint’s first release, Maplight founder and author Daniel G. Newman and artist George O’Connor’s Unrig: How To Fix Our Broken Democracy (Jul.), zeroes in on wealth and influence impacting U.S. politics. Also in July, Dutch cartoonist Charlot Kristensen’s debut What We Don’t Talk About (Avery Hill) unveils an interracial romance in which the couple’s first meeting with insensitive parents leads to a crisis of love.

Meanwhile, small press Iron Circus founder C. Spike Trotman describes the company’s new erotica imprint Smut Peddler Presents as “an umbrella brand for what we are probably best known for: sex-positive smut.” That line debuts in May with the tantalizing anthology Smut Peddler Presents: Silver


Superheroic adventure continues to be a rich area for creators to explore. Hoopla’s Barry notes that “traditional superhero stories aren’t going anywhere, [but] we’re beginning to see more of a balance...[with] the rise in niche titles, backed by diverse voices.” This month, best-selling comics writer Jonathan Hickman and talented artist Leinil Francis Yu turn the world of mutantkind on its head with their new X-Men, Vol. 1 (­Marvel), marking a new mission for the team. 

With the literary mashup Adler (Titan Comics, Aug.), author Lavie Tidhar and illustrator Paul McCaffrey revel in the steampunk period of Victoriana, pairing Sherlockian adventuress Irene Adler with a former governess named Jane. Together they foil a plot involving supervillains, immortal queens, and a rogue vampire. Writer Devin Grayson and artist Alitha E. Martinez introduce a new superhero universe with Omni, Vol 1: The Doctor Is In (Humanoids, Apr.), starring a physician who can think faster than the speed of light and identify other specially ­powered people. With COPRA Round Six (Image, May), cartoonist Michel Fiffe continues his originally self-published, pop-art, reality-bending love letter to 1990s-era grim heroics. A remastered edition of The Breathtaker Collection (Titan Comics, Jul.), from author Mark Wheatley and artist Marc Hempel, replete with a new story by the original creators, deconstructs and rebuilds the world of four-color fantasies with a tale of a woman whose innocent acts of love drain the life force of those she is closest to, even as she’s pursued by government-sponsored superhero The Man. Celebrated comics scribe Paul Levitz and artist M.J. Kim mix superheroics with a murder mystery in The Visitor (Valiant, Jul.), as a treacherous villain runs amok committing acts of terror. Of Valiant Comics’s new releases, John Petrie, senior sales manager, says, “Human characters might be the scariest monsters of all...the aim is to cover different genres so as to provide a great book for every type of reader.” 


Biography and memoir can be pure magic in the graphic format; as Singh from BOOM! remarks, “the most powerful stories—in any medium—act both as a mirror for humanity and the world outside our window.” Casting its own spell with a singular placement of comic panels to imply rhythm and tell his subject’s life story, Eisner-nominated cartoonist Scott Chantler’s Bix (Gallery 13: S. & S., May; see author Q&A) presents a nearly wordless biography of tragic early jazz phenom Bix Beiderbecke. In the whimsically drawn Dancing After Ten (Fantagraphics, May), creators Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber open up Chong’s own artistic journey of using dance, sound, and movement when a rare illness robbed her of sight. Cartoonist Mike Hawthorne’s Happiness Will Follow (Archaia: BOOM!, Jul.) offers a provocative story of how a Santeria death curse eventually led him from Puerto Rico and into the world of professional comic art. In I­nvisible ­Differences: A Story of Asperger’s, Adulting, and ­Living a Life in Full Color (Oni, Aug.), French activist Julie Dachez teams with ­writer/artist Mademoiselle Caroline to relate coming to terms with her own ­Asperger’s diagnosis. Life and death are the fuel for creator Leslie Stein’s I Know You Rider (D&Q, May), in which talks with the author’s family and other parents help her process the tumult of her thoughts about abortion. With The Winter of the Cartoonist (­Fantagraphics, May; LJ 2/20), esteemed Spanish creator Paco Roca delivers a masterly true tale of the cartoonists of Spain’s Editorial Bruguera who, after the devastating 1930s Spanish Civil War, dared to create original work of their own.

Comics have long proven a meaningful way to craft poignant journalistic insights. Aurélien Ducoudray and Jeff Pourquié’s ambitious The Third Population (Graphic Medicine: Pennsylvania State Univ., May) sees the respective writer and artist embedded in the French psychiatric clinic La Chesnaie to observe the doctors and patients and relate their experiences. Making his full-length comics debut, author Scott MacGregor, with seasoned illustrator Gary Dumm, releases Fire on the Water (Comics Art: Abrams, May), a story that underlines the racism and class disparity lurking behind the 1916 Lake Erie tunnel disaster in Cleveland. Venerable cartoonist Joe Sacco’s Paying the Land (Metropolitan: Holt, May; see review on p. 77) investigates the Dené of Canada’s Mackenzie River Valley, as the forces of mining and development disrupt their way of life. And acclaimed creator Derf Backderf (My Friend Dahmer) returns with the deeply personal and carefully researched Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Comics Art: Abrams, Apr.; LJ 2/20), a humanizing look at the catastrophic 1970 antiwar protest. The connection between the Cold War and action artist Jackson Pollock is as richly explored as the artist’s revolutionary approach to painting in Italian creator Onofrio Catcchio’s Pollock Confidential: A Graphic Novel (Laurence King, Apr.), while R. Sikoryak’s Constitution Illustrated (D&Q, Jun.) reinvigorates the words of the U.S. Constitution with classic comic art riffs from Peanuts to The Boondocks.

Coming soon are an array of formally ambitious and ­experimental graphic works. Depicting the still-unresolved conflict between an Apache family and mining concerns in Arizona, MacArthur fellow Lauren Redniss’s Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West (Random, Apr.) pushes the format’s boundaries by blending text and striking colored-pencil drawings in a work halfway between comics and fine art illustration. This visual ­innovation dovetails nicely with the already released but notable comics journalism newspaper LAAB #4 (Beehive), and artist/writer Anika Orrock’s multimedia and animation-rich look at The Incredible Women of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (Chronicle).


“With manga…still the most popular translated form of graphic novel/comic, sales are way up in all territories and across all sales channels,” declares Kevin Hamric, senior director of sales and marketing, VIZ Media. Recognizing the global popularity of the form, Marvel Comics released in February Aero, Vol. 1, from authors Zhou Liefen and Greg Pak and artist Keng, along with creator Gunji’s Sword Master, Vol.1. Forthcoming new manga includes artist/writer Tamifull’s How Do We Relationship?, Vol. 1 (VIZ, Jun.), which sees shy Miwa and glamorous friend Saeko decide to date out of desperation, only to find true feelings developing. Author/illustrator Keiko Ishihara’s Prince Freya, Vol. 1 (VIZ, Apr.) presents the tale of farm girl Freya’s resemblance to ailing Prince Edvard, leading her to take his place to prevent the kingdom’s demise. The arresting anthology Venus in the Blind Spot (VIZ, Aug.) continues to unfold the terrifying world of horror master Junji Ito, offering a disquieting adaptation of Japanese writer Rampo Edogawa’s short story “Human Chair.” 


This spring, fantasy and sf worlds come to life in works of illustrated fiction. Due out in May, National Book Award–winning children’s author M.T. Anderson and artist Jo Rioux’s The Daughters of Ys (First Second) reimagines the Celtic legend of two royal sisters choosing different paths when confronted with a legacy of betrayal and magic within their Atlantis-like kingdom, leaving one of them twisted inside. Bringing her beloved “Ember in the Ashes” fantasy series to the graphic novel form, YA author Sabaa Tahir teams with artists Nicole Andelfinger and Sonia Liao to present A Thief Among the Trees: An Ember in the Ashes Graphic Novel (Archaia: BOOM!, Jul.), following future enemies Elias and Helene undertaking a death-defying mission while attending Blackcliff ­Military Academy. 

Speaking to fresh, creative output, Iron Circus’s Trotman asserts “There will always be new creators coming in, with new perspectives, informed in part by previous generations’ efforts.” These remarks are strongly evidenced by the colorful nightmare of Bluebeard: A Feminist Fairy Tale (Papercutz, May), which sees the creative team of Franco-Scottish duo John Chalmers and Sandra Marrs, aka Metaphrog, use the graphic form to stretch the myth even further to accommodate modern perspectives. This June from Valiant comes two books that live nicely between sf and fantasy, with just a dash of superhero: writer Dan Abnett and artist Juan Jose Ryp’s RAI, Bk. 1, featuring a strikingly rendered cyborg ronin wandering a postapocalyptic New Japan seeking to avenge old wrongs, and author Fred Van Lente and illustrator Renato Guedes’s Psi-Lords, which tracks four Earthlings waking in a deep space prison who realize they now have special abilities and must work together to escape.

Meanwhile, author Tze Chun and artist Toni Fejzula’s ­Forgotten Blade (TKO, Jul.) tells of a disgraced warrior who takes on a malevolent god whose cruel tyranny knows no bounds, armed only with the powers of the Forgotten Blade. Bringing the fantastic back to the modern era, film producer Garth Stein teams with Stumptown artist Matthew Southworth in The Cloven, Bk. 1 (Fantagraphics, Jul.), which leans conspiratorially with the tale of genetically manipulated Tuck uncovering secrets behind his cloven hoofs and the lab experiments that created him and others.


Life’s rich pageant never fails to motivate storytellers. French-Canadian creator Mikaël’s epic historical fiction Giant (NBM, May) explores the life of the titular Irish immigrant who is building New York’s skyline in the 1930s. His correspondence with his friend’s widow conceals the man’s death and awakens something more meaningful in life than steel. Television lives take center stage in Ignatz Award–winning Brian “Box” Brown’s Child Star (First Second, Jun.), which considers the full measure and impact of a childhood pop-culture phenomenon after his fame fades. Two April titles from Image include Paul Is Dead (Image), in which writer Paolo Baron and artist Ernesto Carbonetti trace a psychedelic investigation of the urban legend surrounding the Sgt. Pepper–era Beatles and Paul McCartney’s alleged untimely demise, and creator Remy Boydell’s 920London, investigating the lives of two young Londoners immersed in emo culture in 2005, rendered in watercolor images and featuring anthropomorphic characters. In Archie: 1955 (Archie, Jul.), the universal backdrop of Archie and the Riverdale gang is the template for writer Mark Waid and artist Tom ­Grummett’s exploration of the ride of rock and roll in America.

Creators motivated by ambitious artistry extend the boundaries of the comics language even further this spring. One exceptional example is Blutch’s Mitchum (NYRC, Apr.), an impressionistic, wordless take on classic Hollywood, graphically danced through bold line work and a French perspective. With Spit Three Times (Seven Stories, Apr.), cartoonist Davide Reviati uses rich black ink and delicate line work to portray a coming-of-age story of Romani in rural Italy and their interactions with hostile townspeople soon after World War II. Finally, a pivotal event in the life of Christ comes to the fore with creator Evan Dahm’s The Harrowing of Hell (Iron Circus, Jun.), which boldly presents Jesus’s trip freeing souls between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, employing black, white, and red to dramatize the event.


Humanity’s dark heart is a topic sometimes best expressed through crime fiction and horror. With Pulp (Image, May), superstar creatives Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips offer a stark meditation on physical and mental violence in a tale of a 1930s pulp writer confronting dilemmas in his real life and in his fiction. Horror reigns in actor-turned-author David Dastmalchian and artist Lukas Ketner’s Count Crowley: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter (Dark Horse, May), which follows an alcoholic late-night TV host who faces grave threats from all-too-real supernatural menaces. Entering the four-color fray for the first time, Turner Publishing delivers writer Jennifer Brody and artist Jules Rivera’s Spectre Deep 6 (May), centering on a highly skilled black ops team of genuine ghosts with attitudes. More criminal mayhem occurs in author Carlos Trillo and illustrator Roberto Mandrafina’s The Big Hoax (Titan, Jun.), in which a young woman’s virginity is at the crux of a mystery that draws her into the orbit of a famed assassin in an early 20th-century banana republic. In Ruby Falls (Berger: Dark Horse, May), writer Ann Nocenti and artist Flavia Bondi dig up old crimes in a small town where young Lana pulls at the threads of a cold case, having discovered her grandmother might have concealed clues to the murder. ­Authors Steven Niles and Salvatore ­Simeone and ­artist ­Szymon Kudranski team up in Lonesome Days, Savage Nights (TKO, Jul.), about a cop–turned–hardboiled private eye who uses the fearsome power of the monster within to exact revenge and get justice for a friend betrayed by society. 

More supernatural mischief comes to life in GLAAD Award–winning author James Tynion IV and illustrator Werther Dell’Edera’s Something Is Killing the Children, Vol. 1 (Boom!, May), wherein monsters preying on the youth of the village of Archer’s Peak find out that a woman they should fear is stalking them. And writer/artist Axelle Lenoir’s fun but spooky Camp Spirit (Top Shelf: IDW, Apr.) finds brooding new counselor Elodie unhappy at camp, challenged by rowdy youths and otherworldly threats. 

Perhaps in the end, instead of reaching peak comics, each creative upsurge will simply crash into the next over and over again, forming a long ouroboros from the basic building blocks for the human experience—dreams. Hoopla’s Barry might sum up today’s comics landscape best: “In recent years, we’ve observed this huge shift in the perception of comics and graphic novels. We’re seeing educators and librarians alike championing comics as not only a viable option in the classroom...but also as a gateway for reluctant readers, making reading fun again for people of all ages.”  

Going Graphic

Below are the titles mentioned in this article. Translations are denoted by (tr.) 

Abnett, Dan & Juan Jose Ryp RAI Bk 1. Valiant  Jun. 
Anderson, M.T. & Jo Rioux The Daughters of Ys First Second May
Appleby, Steven Dragman Metropolitan: Holt Apr. 
Backderf, Derf Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio Comic Arts: Abrams  Apr.
Baron, Paron & Ernesto Carbonetti Paul Is Dead  Image May
Blutch Mitchum NYRC  Apr. 
Boydell, Remy 920London Image May
Brody, Jennifer & Jules Rivera Spectre Deep 6 Turner May
Brown, Brian “Box” Child Star First Second Jun.
Brubaker, Ed & Sean Phillips Pulp Image May
Burell, Emei We Served the People  Archaia: BOOM!  May
Catcchio, Onofrio Pollock Confidential (Tr.) Laurence King  Apr.
Chantler, Scott Bix Gallery 13: S. & S. May
Chong, Vivian & Georgia Webber Dancing After Ten Fantagraphics May
Chun, Tze & Toni Fejzula Forgotten Blade TKO Jul.
Dachez, Julie & Mlle. Caroline Invisible Differences: A Story of Asperger’s, Adulting, and Living in Full Color (Tr.) Oni Aug.
Dahm, Evan  The Harrowing of Hell Iron Circus Jun.
Dastmalchian, David & Lukas Ketner Count Crowley: Vol. 1: Reluctant Midnight Monster Hunter Dark Horse Jun.
Ducoudray, Aurélien & Jeff Pourquié   The Third Population Graphic Medicine: Univ. of Pennsylvania May
Fiffe, Michel COPRA Round Six Image May
Grayson, Devin & Alitha E. Martinez Omni. Vol. 1: The Doctor Is In Humanoids Apr.
Hawthorne, Mike Happiness Will Follow Archaia: BOOM! Jul.
Hickman, Jonathan & Leinil Francis Yu X-Men. Vol. 1 Marvel  Apr.
Ishihara, Keiko Prince Freya, Vol. 1 (Tr.) VIZ Apr.
Ito, Jungi Venus in the Blind  Spot (Tr.) VIZ Aug.
Kristensen, Charlot What We Don’t Talk About Avery Hill Jul.
Lenoir, Axelle Camp Spirit Top Shelf: IDW Apr.
Levitz, Paul & M.J. Kim The Visitor Valiant Jul.
MacGregor, Scott & Gary Dumm Fire on the Water  Comic Arts: Abrams May
Metaphrog Bluebeard: A Feminist Tale Papercutz May
Mikaël Giant (Tr.) NBM May
Newman, Daniel G. & George O’Connor Unrig: How To Fix Our Broken Democracy World Citizen:First Second Jul.
Niles, Steven & others Lonesome Days, Savage Nights TKO Jul. 
Nocenti, Ann & Flavia Bondi Ruby Falls. Vol. 1 Berger: Dark Horse May
Redniss, Lauren  Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West Random  Apr.
Reviati, Davide  Spit Three Times (Tr.) Seven Stories  Apr.
Roca, Paco The Winter of the Cartoonist (Tr.) Fantagraphics May
Sacco, Joe Paying the Land Metropolitan: Holt May
Sikoryak, R.  Constitution Illustrated D&Q Jun.
Stein, Garth & Matthew Southworth The Cloven. Bk. 1 Fantagraphics  Jul. 
Stein, Leslie I Know You Rider D&Q May
Tahir, Sabaa & others A Thief Among the Trees Archaia: BOOM! Jul.
Tamifull How Do We Relationship? Vol. 1 (Tr.) VIZ Jun. 
Tidhar, Lavie & Paul McCaffrey Adler Titan Aug.
Trillo, Carlos & Roberto Mandrafina The Big Hoax Titan  Jun.
Tynion, James IV & others Something Is Killing the Children. Vol. 1 BOOM! May
Van Lente, Fred & Renato Guedes Psi-Lords Valiant Jun.
Various Smut Peddler Presents: Silver Iron Circus  May
Waid, Mark & Tom Grummett Archie: 1955 Archie Comics Jul.
Wheatley, Mark & Marc Hempel The Breathtaker Collection Titan Jul.

Douglas Rednour is a Collection Support Specialist, Georgia State University Library, Atlanta. A lifelong devotee of comics, from the one-panel gags to multivolume graphic novels, Rednour has long created his own comic strips and works of animation and film. He is a regular contributor to LJ’s graphic novels section and was the 2017 LJ Video Reviewer of the Year

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