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The range of comic book storytelling is vast, and this selection of 2021’s best graphic novels, memoirs and histories runs the gamut in terms of artistic style and narrative approach, yet all of them have two things in common: a mastery of the form and a unique sense of expression.

Bubble

The stakes of the gig economy have never been higher than in Bubble, a graphic novel by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan with illustrations from Tony Cliff and colors by Natalie Riess. Adapted from the scripted podcast of the same name, Bubble is set in a world where corporate-funded cities have sprung up as domes of safety, walling off humanity from a monster-ridden wilderness known as the Brush. Morgan was born in the Brush, and though she’s grown accustomed to life in the bubble, she’s retained a few of her more useful Brush skills, including the ability to kill pesky mutated imps. Naturally, her employers have just the thing to help her monetize that ability.

Bubble crackles with wit and biting commentary on piecing together a living one app at a time. Cliff's art enriches the whole wild affair, lending a grounding sense of reality to the reading experience despite the fantastical setting. He’s as adept at depicting action-packed scenes as he is at homing in on a character’s eyes at a key moment of personal discovery. There’s tremendous glee to be found in Bubble, but also tremendous heart.

Ballad for Sophie

A young woman talks her way into the mansion of one of the world’s most reclusive musicians and convinces him to give her an interview. That’s the premise from which Ballad for Sophie springs, and with a sense of adversarial yet whimsical tension, we are propelled into a world of bittersweet wonders, tragedy and music.

Written by jazz composer Filipe Melo, illustrated by Juan Cavia and translated from the original Spanish by Gabriela Soares, Ballad for Sophie unfolds as the aging pianist tells his story. We meet a lifelong rival, a lost love, a tormented mother, a devilish piano teacher and more, their rich narrative tapestry unfolding against backdrops that range from World War II to the luxury of 1960s Paris. 

Through it all, Melo’s characters are either constantly growing or constantly resisting growth, while Cavia’s art sweeps across the page with lithe figures and elegant depictions of bygone eras. When the story dips into the past, his art grows slightly more magical, turning piano teachers into great horned creatures and piano recitals into dramatically lit clashes of titans.

Emotionally dense, texturally rich and humming with humanity, Ballad for Sophie is a moving portrait of the ways in which art can both save and doom us.

Interior image from Ballad for Sophie
From Ballad for Sophie. Used with permission from Top Shelf.

Lore Olympus

Some elements of Greek mythology are simply timeless. In Lore Olympus: Volume One, Rachel Smythe reminds us of this using her acclaimed artistic magic. This is the first volume of her webcomic “Lore Olympus,” and it’s striking to see her work collected in such a lavish tome after its celebrated web release.

As Smythe unveils her retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth, her gorgeous art elevates each scene. She uses precise color and shading to bathe the Greek gods in neon hues of purple and blue, like they're perpetually in some mythic nightclub. Readers will revel in how seamlessly Smythe has adapted this classic story, and in no time at all, they’ll find themselves utterly lost in her beautifully dark, often startlingly timely world of sex, lies and immortality. 

The Middle Ages

You’ve probably heard that the Middle Ages wasn’t really the period of darkness and ignorance that popular culture has made it out to be, but you’ve never seen that truth demonstrated quite like in The Middle Ages: A Graphic History. Medieval historian Eleanor Janega and illustrator Neil Max Emmanuel set out to reveal how this period took shape and why it became so consequential, and they never miss in that mission. 

Rather than attempting a strictly linear dissection of centuries of human history, The Middle Ages unfolds almost as an illustrated textbook, with sections devoted to everything from the fall of Rome to the rise of Charlemagne to the growth of major European cities. Janega’s prose is precise, informative, digestible and witty. Emmanuel’s simple but effective black-and-white art carries that same wit through to the visuals, alternating between modern compositions and homages to medieval aesthetics, with amusing revisions to the Bayeux Tapestry and clever representations of church schisms.

It all adds up to an utterly essential volume for history buffs, whether they’re diving into the medieval period for the first time or just brushing up on a few things. 

★ Run

The follow-up to Congressman John Lewis’ monumental, award-winning March series, Run: Book One kicks off a new graphic trilogy that further establishes Lewis as a fundamental, undeniable force in the mid-1960s American civil rights movement.

Lewis completed work on the script for Run before his death in 2020, and illustrator L. Fury joins writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell (both of whom collaborated on the March trilogy) in carefully layering Lewis’ recollections with vivid depictions of celebrations and violence, hope and heartbreak, despair and determination. The story picks up after the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, as Lewis encountered new roadblocks and hurdles in the wake of that legislative victory. Through dramatic composition and movement, Powell and Fury’s illustrations capture the same energy as the March trilogy, while also conveying Lewis’ maturation as he grows out of his student organizing era and enters the realm of American statesmanship.

Run is another indispensable chronicle of the life and work of one of 20th-century America’s most exceptional figures, but it’s also a mission statement for the work yet to come.

Interior image from Run: Book One
From Run: Book One. Used with permission from Abrams ComicArts.

★ Seek You

It might sound like a cliche to say that a book delving into America’s loneliness epidemic will make you feel more connected to the world around you, but that’s exactly what writer and illustrator Kristen Radtke achieves in this ambitious book. 

Part memoir, part sociological study and part cultural history, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness digs deep into the many ways that loneliness affects our daily lives. Through incisive, often disarmingly confessional writing, Radtke gets to the core of what loneliness is and what it does to our bodies and minds, exploring everything from its neurological roots to the impact of the sitcom studio audience laugh track. 

Throughout Seek You, we are guided by Radtke’s beautifully muted art. Some pages are powerful in their simplicity, such as a wide view of a massive apartment complex with a single lit window, while others are effective in their complexity, such as a spread showing a lone figure amid a fog of words describing their most alienating experiences. 

Seek You is a captivating combination of raw emotional exploration and thoughtful, sophisticated imagination.

The Waiting

A chance encounter with a dog on a city street pulls a character back through decades of memories and serves as the launching point for a stirring graphic novel by author-illustrator Keum Suk Gendry-Kim.

Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong, The Waiting explores a very particular kind of loss on the Korean peninsula. In bold, fluid black-and-white imagery, Gendry-Kim tells a story inspired by her own mother, who lived under Japanese occupation in Korea before World War II, then was forced to migrate during the Korean War and the permanent division of Korea along the 38th parallel. Many Koreans fled their homes amid the fighting, causing a surge of family separations that led to lifetimes of waiting and hoping. 

Though The Waiting is set amid some of the most consequential events of the 20th century, Gendry-Kim never makes the book’s scope wider than it needs to be. The Waiting is better for it, succeeding as a deeply intimate portrayal of one woman’s struggle to not only survive but also keep some measure of hope and determination alive. It’s also about the broader goal of an entire culture to somehow come back together after war, through individual efforts and massive group reunions. 

In depicting a people’s efforts to find each other, The Waiting is one of the most moving graphic novels of the year.

★ Wake

Writer and activist Rebecca Hall and illustrator Hugo Martínez present a powerful meditation on hidden history that transforms into a haunting, necessary statement on exactly why that history has been hidden, and how much of it still lives with us.

In Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, Hall, whose grandparents were enslaved, recounts her process of researching several 18th-century revolts that were led by enslaved women. Though some of the book’s most affecting sequences re-create these revolts, much of Wake is a memoir of Hall’s search for the brave, rebellious women who led them, the punishments they suffered and what, if anything, they managed to leave behind. In the process of constructing their stories, Hall tells much of her own, laying bare how the echoes of enslavement inform our political world as well as her own daily interactions.

Hall’s prose is stunning, and Martínez’s art takes it to another level, delivering expressive representations of the history Hall carries with her and of the reminders of slavery’s cruelty that are etched into the landscapes we walk now. His artwork bleeds past and present together, depicting the city streets around Hall as shadowy memorials of the slave markets that once stood there. When he projects the images of enslaved men and women onto the facades of skyscrapers, he transforms these feats of architecture into monuments to atrocities.

Wake is as poetic as it is powerful. Readers who adored the March trilogy and the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred will find it to be an essential addition to their shelves.

A sampling of the year’s best graphics and comics includes a neon-bright retelling of a Greek myth and the continued memoirs of a civil rights legend.

In The Right to Sex, Amia Srinivasan, a professor of social and political theory at All Souls College at the University of Oxford, engages with some of the most complex hot-button cultural issues to emerge around sex and consent in the 21st century. With intelligence and clarity, Srinivasan unpacks the moral and philosophical underpinnings of such topics as false rape accusations, pornography and teacher-student relationships, making her book an invaluable companion for readers interested in nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait. 

The book emerged from Srinivasan’s 2018 essay “The Right to Sex,” which considered the case of Elliot Rodger, the killer whose deadly rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014 was supposedly motivated by his status as an “incel,” or involuntary celibate. Rodger’s assumption that he was somehow “owed” sex from women has proven to be a toxic influence on some social media platforms. In considering this case, Srinivasan moves her argument in unexpected directions to ask ever larger and harder philosophical questions: While there is no “right” to demand sex from other people, how should we think about desirability as a concept? Why are some bodies seen as desirable and others aren’t? How is desirability a political concept, shaped by popular culture?

In other essays, Srinivasan provides a helpful survey of the history of feminist responses to pornography, which range widely from the anti-porn feminism of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon in the 1970s and ’80s to the more pro-sex pleasure activists of the 1990s. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Srinivasan opens up these issues beyond their original contexts to engage with them in a contemporary setting. To this end, Srinivasan’s classroom of undergraduates at Oxford becomes a kind of testing ground for how young people think about pornography and the influence it has had on them as the first fully digital generation.

With articulate precision, Srinivasan’s timely book offers readers a lucid and compelling guide to thinking philosophically about sex and power.

Amia Srinivasan’s book about sex and consent is invaluable for readers interested in intelligent, clear and nuanced analysis rather than hasty clickbait.

The structure destined to become the Midnight Sun Mosque in Canada’s Northwest Territories had to be transported 2,800 miles from Winnipeg to Inuvik, much of it by barge. It’s now the worship house for some 100 Muslims, mostly men who were displaced from conflict zones and now drive taxis among the Inuit. They spend their spare time operating a much-needed community food bank.

On the other end of the North American continent is the Ahmadiyya mosque in Chiapas, Mexico. It’s run by a Mayan Indian, a former evangelical Christian and Zapatista leftist who got involved in Islam via a Sufi imam from an offbeat mosque in Spain founded by a Scottish hippie.

Neither fits the stereotype of a mosque that so many non-Muslim North Americans have. That’s exactly the point of Omar Mouallem’s absorbing Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas, which explores the Muslim population of the Americas in all its staggering diversity.

Mouallem, a Canadian of Lebanese descent who grew up in a Muslim family but whose personal feelings about Islam became complicated as an adult, examines his own inner turmoil as he visits 13 mosques. They’re incredibly varied but fall roughly into two groups: communities founded by Muslim immigrants, like the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, and more idiosyncratic movements begun by non-Muslims, like the Nation of Islam.

The immigrant experience described by Mouallem will sound familiar to many Americans: the desire by the first generation to assimilate, followed by a rediscovery of roots by their children, then a more eclectic approach by grandchildren. The mosques he visits reflect these different relationships to assimilation. One early Muslim community, founded by Lebanese peddlers in North Dakota, for example, is now nearly indistinguishable from its Christian neighbors. Other, newer mosques have experienced more turbulence as they’ve acclimatized to their communities, such as a Quebec mosque that was the scene of a horrific massacre by a white man in 2017 and still has to employ tight security measures to protect itself.

Mouallem seems most attracted to Unity Mosque, which is open to all traditions and welcomes gay people and female faith leaders. He suspects North America will lead the way as Islam evolves, but regardless of whether that happens, his book has made it impossible not to see this faith tradition’s rich complexity.

Praying to the West explores the Muslim population of the Americas in all its staggering diversity and makes it impossible not to see Islam’s rich complexity.

Before she was the world-famous creator of #MeToo, the movement that sparked a reckoning with the mistreatment of women, especially women of color, Tarana Burke was a community organizer and journalist. Her experience as a reporter will be no surprise to anyone who reads Unbound: My Story of Liberation and the Birth of the Me Too Movement, her unflinching, open-hearted, beautifully told account of becoming one of the most consequential activists in America.

Burke was molested by a neighborhood boy in the Bronx when she was 7. Over the years, despite the presence of several loving adults in her life, Burke was repeatedly sexually assaulted. “I was a grown woman before I truly understood the word rape and was able to relate it to my experience,” she writes. “Language like rape, molestation, and abuse were foreign to me as a child. I had no definitions and no context. Nobody around me talked like that.”

In spite of her trauma, Burke writes with humor and gratitude about her experiences. She delves into the rich history of her family, led by a granddaddy who “believed in celebrating Blackness in as many ways as possible” and a mother who was a devout Catholic. In school, Burke was both academically gifted and an agitator who spent time in the principal’s office. A high school leadership program led Burke to Selma, Alabama, where she laid the groundwork for #MeToo after realizing there was an utter lack of programs to support and protect young women as they spoke their truth about sexual abuse.

Burke also writes honestly about her reaction to #MeToo becoming a viral phenomenon on social media in 2017, initially without her knowledge or participation. After spending more than a decade traveling around the country, conducting workshops and speaking on panels about surviving sexual assault, she worried social media would water down or misuse her work.

Ultimately Burke realized that “all the folks who were using the #metoo hashtag, and all the Hollywood actresses who came forward with their allegations, needed the same thing that the little Black girls in Selma, Alabama, needed—space to be seen and heard. They needed empathy and compassion and a path to healing.”

Unbound is not just a thoroughly engrossing read. It’s also an important book that helps us understand the woman who has been so influential as our country struggles to acknowledge women’s trauma.

Unbound is Tarana Burke’s unflinching, beautifully told account of founding the #MeToo movement and becoming one of the most consequential activists in America.

The books in this month’s lifestyles column will deepen your understanding of the world and broaden your compassion for the humans you share it with. 

How to Suffer Outside

“If you can walk, put stuff in a bag, and remember to eat, you can backpack,” declares Diana Helmuth in the perfectly titled How to Suffer Outside: A Beginner’s Guide to Hiking and Backpacking. I’m not entirely sure I buy this statement, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the heck out of Helmuth’s funny, frank writing. Her perspective is a breath of fresh air on the whole fresh-air-and-nature thing. While she claims to be no expert backpacker herself, she drops all kinds of useful, earned wisdom in these pages, spinning tales from her own hiking adventures along the way. A random sample: “One of the saddest things about backpacking is that no matter how clean the water looks, you probably can’t drink it. Even deep in the wilderness, tiny dregs of civilization are there to ruin your good time.” Were I a bookseller, I would press this book on customers regardless of their interest in backpacking. I would recommend it for the voice and storytelling: Here, stay inside if you want. Turn off Netflix, and read this.

Demystifying Disability

The disabled community is vast and diverse, and society is due for a paradigm shift in thinking and talking about its members. With Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally, activist and writer Emily Ladau is a responsible guide and advocate for change, and her book is one that everyone could benefit from reading. Ladau recognizes that just as there are multitudes of disabilities, there is room for all of us to learn more about disabled people’s varied experiences and make our world more inclusive and accessible. Changes in vocabulary—like opting for disabled instead of euphemistic words like handi-capable (a particular peeve of Ladau’s), or avoiding words like lame and idiot as common pejoratives—help shift mindsets one word at a time. Changes in media norms are necessary as well. Landau explains how feel-good stories about disabled people “overcoming” their disabilities actually reinforce the bias toward able-bodied people. Right now, ableist beliefs and behaviors still fly under the radar, and Ladau’s careful treatment of this subject is a corrective that can help us all be better humans.

Forget Prayers, Bring Cake

While the title is pleasingly cheeky, Forget Prayers, Bring Cake: A Single Woman’s Guide to Grieving never loses sight of the fact that there’s nothing funny about the death of a loved one. Grieving is always difficult, but it can be immeasurably more painful if you’re a single woman, argues Merissa Nathan Gerson—on top of all the ways our culture is ill-suited, period, for allowing us the time and space and voice that grief demands. After learning that in other cultures there’s an individual known as a moirologist—“a non-married woman hired . . . to strike the earth, tear at her hair, scream and wail and provoke others to grieve for the dead”—Gerson offers herself, with this book, as a compassionate, experienced voice for those who have suffered a loss. Her advice and personal stories offer solace and insight for any mourner but are shared with a keen eye toward the unique experience of losing a loved one when you are young and single. 

The books in this month’s lifestyles column will deepen your understanding of the world and broaden your compassion for the humans you share it with.

Green Bank, West Virginia, is known as the quietest town in America. It’s a lushly forested place where a government-owned observatory requires unimaginable levels of quiet, and therefore where locals are asked to eschew cell phones, microwaves and Wi-Fi.

Since the Green Bank Observatory was built in 1957, scientists there have quite literally listened to the universe through equipment that only works when it’s not competing with the electronic noise of modern society. Employees at the observatory have spent decades mitigating radio frequency noise, outfitting the Dollar General’s automated front door with conductive lead paint to block electromagnetic radiation and once even replacing a malfunctioning electric blanket in a local home. 

While some locals sneak in forbidden electric gadgets, Green Bank is a haven for those who seek unusual peace and quiet. When journalist Stephen Kurczy started visiting regularly in 2017, he quickly realized it’s an eclectic group. The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence is his fascinating, deeply reported and slightly eerie look at an unusual corner of America.

“Had I walked into a dream?” Kurczy wonders. “An elderly man was cohabitating with bears down the road from the world-famous clown doctor Patch Adams and just a few miles from a hippie enclave, all of them sharing a patch of Appalachia with world-renowned astronomers and secretive government operatives. The area seemed tinged with magical realism, with an impossible menagerie of eccentrics congregating in the forest.”

How had so many disparate groups found their way to the same town in West Virginia? The truth is, many of them came there to be left alone. In repeated trips to Green Bank, Kurczy gets to know these various groups, from the white nationalists who attempted to build their headquarters there to a group of electrosensitives who become ill from even the slightest electromagnetic radiation and who moved to Green Bank in a desperate attempt to quell their sickness.

Ultimately, Kurczy realizes Green Bank is not as silent as the media portrays it, but he brings to life other facets of this town that are even more intriguing. Kurczy becomes embedded in the community, and with compassion and a journalist’s eye he delivers a compelling portrait of a town where people struggle with the same issues as the rest of America, just a little more quietly.

The Quiet Zone is Stephen Kurczy’s fascinating, deeply reported and slightly eerie look at a town in West Virginia with no cell phones, microwaves or Wi-Fi.

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