LET’S begin with a negative. “A lot of publishers seem to be cutting back on graphic novels,” veteran cartoonist Bryan Talbot told The Herald Magazine in the autumn. “I don’t know why. It’s the fastest growing area of publishing on either side of the Atlantic over the last 15 years.”

Indeed, and 2021 saw the usual bumper crop of interesting, impressive and entertaining graphic novels. Any year that sees new books from Alison Bechdel (The Secret to Superhuman Strength, via Jonathan Cape, £16.99) and Barry Windsor-Smith (Monsters, published by Fantagraphics, £25) is not a bad one by any stretch of the imagination. Let’s hope publishers recognise this going forward too.

Bechdel’s account of her obsession with exercise is a typically wide-ranging piece of work that takes in love, sex, philosophy, nature and Nordic skiing and earns all of the plaudits it has received this year. But what were the other graphic novels that deserved your attention this year? Here follows Graphic Content’s own boss-eyed choice.

And let’s start with the aforementioned Bryan Talbot. His Grandville L’Integrale (Jonathan Cape, £40) is easily the most page-turning graphic novel of the year. Or should that be five graphic novels. This epic gather-up of all five of Talbot’s steampunk-flavoured takes on classic spy, crime and adventure stories starring a rambunctious anthropomorphic badger called LeBrock is a pure romp.

But after you’ve rushed through every story (because it’s impossible not to) you go back and realise just how much information and Easter eggs Talbot has embedded along the way. It’s a block of a book that will keep you busy well into the New Year if it turns up in your Christmas stocking.

Slightly overlooked in the end-of-year lists so far is Guy Delisle’s Factory Summers (Drawn & Quarterly, £17.99), the cartoonist’s account of his teenage summer job working in the local paper mill in Quebec.

The Herald:

Delisle mixes up blocky figurework with neatly rendered city and factoryscapes. Add to that the insights into a working environment, the people who work in the factory and his own family and you have one of the most satisfying, nostalgic and insightful graphic memoirs of the year. For anyone who remembers their teenage summer job with fondness (or not).

Molly Naylor and Lizzy Stewart’s Lights, Planets, People! (Avery Hill, £16.99) is a graphic adaptation of Naylor’s play of the same name. Structured around a lecture by a renowned fictional astronomer called Maggie Hill, it’s really an exploration of female agency, anxiety, heartbreak and our place in the universe. It’s a mark of its strength that none of this feels rushed. Naylor and Stewart transform the source material into a hugely effective and enjoyable graphic novel.

The Herald:

Zara Slattery and Edinburgh-based New Yorker contributor Will McPhail both play with moving between black and white and colour to very different ends in their graphic novels Coma (Myriad Editions, £18.99) and In (Sceptre, £18.99). The former is Slattery’s charged account of a bacterial infection that nearly killed her. (Her hallucinations are in colour; the horror of her illness comes in black and white). She takes potentially difficult material and finds a way to tell the story that is both visually enthralling and heart-rending.

The Herald:

McPhail’s In (above), by contrast, is a playful tale of an insular young illustrator and his love life that takes a turn into sadder territory. Beautifully drawn, funny and really rather moving, it’s a very impressive calling card.

Fellow Scot James Albon’s third graphic novel The Delicacy (Top Shelf Productions, £19.99) offers more robust pleasures with its bold linework and vibrant colours. A family drama that takes in both the Scottish islands and the London restaurant scene, it offers drama and spectacle to pleasing ends.

The Herald:

Worth mentioning are Darryl Cunningham’s Putin’s Russia (Myriad Editions, £16.99), a potent and frankly scary example of graphic journalism and Jinx Freeze by Hurk (Avery Hill, £12.99), a wild mix of B Movie plot, cartoony excess, comic book surrealism and bad taste humour. (There’s even a passing interest in lower-level Scottish football, bizarrely).

But our highlight of the year is Esther’s Notebooks (Pushkin Press, £12.99 each). Pushkin Press published three volumes of Riad Sattouf’s books in quick succession this year. Recounting a young Parisian girl’s daily life, the result is charming but much less whimsical than you might expect from the books’ covers.

The Herald:


Esther lives in a world governed by peer pressure and social media and she herself is both very grown up for her age (she’s 10, 11 and 12 in the respective volumes) and childishly innocent. Sattouf’s broad, big-nosed cartoony drawing style pulls you in, but it’s the real sense of Esther’s personality that keeps your attention. A thrilling reminder that the best comic strips create their own world while also reflecting our own.