Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance.
This week, it’s a selection of 2020 graphic novels to help you support comic shops and get through the isolation of social distancing and sheltering-in-place.
Like every corner of the entertainment industry, comic books have taken a devastating hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Comic shops around the world have had to close their doors as cities, states, and countries go into lockdown, and the United States’ primary comics distributor, Diamond, has suspended shipping of any books with an on-sale date of April 1 or later. Publishers are now reevaluating their schedules for the rest of the year, and as lockdowns extend, the future becomes more uncertain.
It’s a dire time for comic-book retailers, but many are responding to the crisis by offering other ways for people to get their books, whether that’s via curbside pick-up, delivery, or shipping. With no new comics hitting stands for the foreseeable future, now is a great time to check out what you may have missed earlier in the year. Below are seven noteworthy 2020 graphic novels that spotlight different corners of the medium, from hard-hitting memoir to sensational fantasy to superhero reinvention. Feel free to share what comics are keeping you going through quarantine in the comments below, and shout out your local comic shop’s efforts to get books to readers.
With its Easter egg palette and optimistic story of self-discovery and enduring friendship, An Embarrassment Of Witches is a charming graphic novel to brighten these dark times. Co-written by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan with art by Goldstein, the book follows a young post-grad in a world that looks a lot like our reality with some magical upgrades. Grabbing a rideshare means hopping on the back of a broomstick. Internship risks include getting bitten by a man-eating plant, spilling your glass of water, and accidentally unleashing a magical beanstalk. Rory’s immediate life plan is to care for dragons in Australia with her boyfriend, but that hits an abrupt stop when he says he wants to see other people, leaving Rory living in her best friend’s closet, directionless and afraid to tell her mother that she’s screwed everything up. Goldstein and Jordan fill the book with references for fantasy lovers, and Goldstein’s artwork takes advantage of the visual storytelling avenues opened by the genre influence, like using Escher-esque compositions to create a sense of disorientation when an intern first enters her new workplace. Goldstein and Jordan have a tight grip on the anxieties of early adulthood and the ways they can impact personal relationships, and the book’s strong through-line of humor brings out the positive aspects of these characters, highlighting why they appreciate each other so much.
2020 is supposed to be a big year for both Black Widow and artist-writer Chris Samnee, the former finally getting her own solo Marvel Studios film while the latter returns to monthly comics after nearly two years away. But Disney postponed the Black Widow movie and Diamond postponed Free Comic Book Day, which would have debuted Samnee’s new Image Comics series, Fire Power, written by The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman. (The status of Samnee’s second 2020 series, Oni Press’ all-ages Jonna And The Unpossible Monsters, is also a question mark as publishers begin rearranging their schedules.) Thankfully, Marvel just released the complete collection of Samnee’s 12-issue Black Widow series with writer Mark Waid, colorist Matthew Wilson, and letterer Joe Caramagna, chock full of thrilling superspy action that highlights why Samnee is one of the best in the business. The story doesn’t veer far from the Black Widow norm as Natasha confronts a figure from her past and reckons with her assassin history, but the artwork makes it all fresh and exciting. Splitting writing duties with Waid, Samnee crafts a narrative that gives him the opportunity to draw brutal and dynamic fight scenes in a wide array of international locales, colored with bold palettes and rich textures that make the vistas more majestic and the punches more powerful. The trailer for Black Widow reveals that the movie pulls some shots directly from this run, but anyone disappointed by the film’s delay can grab this collection to see Natasha in a high-octane espionage thriller.
A lot of parents forced to work from home are panicking about how to keep their kids busy, and Art Baltazar’s graphic novel gives children ideas on how to take their drawing and coloring game to the next level. Baltazar’s work on books like Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures is all about offering kid-friendly takes on superheroes with an art style that is easy for readers to replicate at home, and he takes this idea even further as he tells a story involving a group of kids creating and sharing their own superhero characters. In Drew And Jot, two young boys build their own universe of costumed crusaders and villains, which is massively disrupted when a little sister gets involved and brings her own chaotic ideas into the mix. The book alternates between scenes in the real world and on the page, a distinction Baltazar makes very clear because the doodle pages overflow with visual stimuli. Anything goes when it comes to the kids’ artwork; they work on pages made from crumpled pieces of paper and bubble wrap, frantically apply vibrant colors, and enthusiastically draw outside of the panel borders. Baltazar shows young readers that they are free to follow any creative impulses on the page, and he does it by giving kids what they really want: superheroes fighting a giant monster made of poop.
“I got myself together.” Joel Christian Gill repeats variations of this phrase over and over in his graphic memoir about how violence shaped his upbringing. Broken apart by the verbal and physical abuse he both witnesses and suffers, the young Joel pulls those pieces back together in order to survive. A gentle, creative boy becomes hard and confrontational in the process, but Gill’s story is ultimately one of empathy and recognizing the pain that drives others to lash out. Fights features a cartoonish style that allows for exaggerated expression, but the narrative is very much grounded in reality as it deals with domestic abuse, sexual assault, racism, and gang violence. Gill creates a visual shorthand for emotional beats with symbolic imagery: A little candle flame appears over Joel’s head when he feels resentment and anger, and that flame reappears over other characters later in the book to quickly establish antagonistic relationships. We see Joel submerged in water when he talks about the drowning feeling he gets when he’s overcome with aggression, and that image repeats with a new subject when Joel’s friend-turned-rival goes into attack mode. Fights builds to a twist that shows just how catastrophic this internalized violence can be when it’s fully unleashed, but in recounting these tragic moments, Gill achieves catharsis that ends the book on a hopeful note.
Isabel Greenberg is a cartoonist fascinated by storytelling and how it shapes both individuals and the world. Her latest graphic novel continues exploring this theme through the lens of historical fiction, imagining the circumstances surrounding the development and destruction of the fantasy world the young Brontë siblings created after the sudden deaths of their older sisters. Greenberg pulls Glass Town and its characters directly from the Brontës’ juvenilia, giving readers a look into the early creativity of an iconic literary family with a playful visual style that captures the Brontës’ enthusiasm as they discover what fiction can do. Glass Town is also a character study of Charlotte Brontë, the last surviving sibling, and Greenberg frames the story with conversations between Charlotte and Charles Wellesley, her primary character in Glass Town. Through Charlotte, Greenberg delves into the dangers of losing yourself in an escapist world. Fictional characters become obsessions that threaten Charlotte’s relationships with her siblings, and in order to be a better sister, she needs to bring herself back to reality. Variations on the characters introduced in Glass Town would reappear in the novels that made the Brontë sisters famous, and this graphic novel inventively weaves the fictional narratives of the young siblings with their own family drama to show how both elements inform their later works.
Instead of binge-watching Game Of Thrones one more time, journey to a new medieval fantasy land with The Golden Age, a magnificent story of palace intrigue and social uprising by Cyril Pedrosa and co-writer Roxanne Moreil. When Princess Tilde’s ascent to the throne is violently interrupted, she goes on the run with two companions and discovers a new future for herself, one tied to a magical book with the potential to change the world. Pedrosa and Moreil introduce a compelling royal lead who doesn’t fully fit the hero mold, and there’s a lot of internal and external conflict that arises as Tilde negotiates her privileged past with what’s expected of her as a revolutionary leader. But the real magic here is the artwork. The Golden Age is so gorgeous you might need to set it down to catch your breath at regular intervals, and First Second gives it the oversized hardcover treatment so that readers can experience the full splendor of Pedrosa’s artwork. A student of Paris’ prestigious Gobelins animation school who went on to work on Disney’s The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Hercules, Pedrosa is a master of character and environmental design. He creates a cast that radiates personality and sprawling settings that force the reader to slow down and take in the detailed linework and lush colors, but also incorporates abstract visuals that are less common in mainstream animation. Every page gives readers something to pore over, and if you can’t leave the house, at least you can get lost in Pedrosa’s art.
We should have predicted how rough 2020 would get given the resurgence of Watchmen as a cultural force in 2019. HBO had a huge hit in its Watchmen TV show, expanding on the work of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons with an all-star cast and a pull-no-punches story that made these concepts especially relevant to modern America. While DC was slowly putting out issues of the much-delayed Doomsday Clock miniseries, Dynamite used its Peter “Thunderbolt” Cannon license to offer a very meta look at Watchmen and its influence on the superhero genre. The character who inspired Watchmen’s Ozymandias, Peter Cannon is at the center of a reality-hopping experiment written by Kieron Gillen with art by Caspar Wjingaard, colorist Mary Sabo, and letterer Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, a team that embraces the malleability of the medium while still adhering to Watchmen’s nine-panel grid. Gillen is both reverent and critical toward Watchmen in his script, recognizing how it pushed comics forward while also expressing his frustrations at creators that pulled the wrong lessons away from it. The art team does phenomenal work bringing this complex narrative to the page, making stylistic shifts that drastically change the tone and feel of the book as Cannon uncovers other versions of himself. On a macro level, Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt asks an industry to reconsider the formal and moral values it has upheld since Watchmen’s debut, a plea wrapped in one super-genius’ multiverse quest to learn how to be a better man.