Click here to see all of the current Great Graphic Novels nominees along with more information about the list and past years’ selections.
Drifting Dragons, vol. 1–5 by Taku Kuwabara
Publication Date: December 17, 2019; December 17, 2019; February 18, 2020; April 3, 2020; August 25, 2020
ISBN: 9781632368904, 9781632369444, 9781632369451, 9781632369512, 9781632369529
Drifting Dragons is a historical fantasy and cooking manga that chronicles the daily life and adventures of the crew of a draking (dragon-hunting) airship. The Quin Zaza is introduced as one of the few draking ships still in operation in this world, and the crew has no port to call home. They follow the dragons and sell the meat, oil, and other byproducts to the locals wherever they are after a successful hunt. The series features a large ensemble cast, but the main characters are Takita, a young woman who is new to the ship and the draking world, and Mika, a brazen man whose driving motivation is how much he enjoys eating dragons. Mika’s appetite leads to many scenes of food preparation and chapters often end with a recipe.
The likable characters, humor, and cooking aspect elevate this series. Draking has an obvious parallel to whaling in the late 19th century, and while it potentially glorifies the practice in volume one, the overall portrayal is nuanced. Throughout the first five volumes, Takita is introduced to traditions of an indigenous draking culture, other ships are admonished for their waste of killing dragons for oil only and not using every part like the Quin Zaza does, and they meet a dragon conservationist who is studying the animals.
The aesthetics of the artwork with steampunk-inspired airships and sky pirates will appeal to fans of the Studio Ghibli classic Castle in the Sky. The fantasy cooking and dragon meat recipes makes this a good read-alike to the Delicious in Dungeon manga. Drifting Dragons has also been adapted into an anime, which is available to US audiences on Netflix. The first 12 episodes cover the action of the first three volumes of the manga.
Long Story Short: 100 Classic Books in Three Panels by Lisa Brown
Algonquin Books / Workman Publishing Company
Publication Date: April 7, 2020
This is exactly what it purports to be—Lisa Brown selects 100 works of literature, most of them classics from the Western canon like Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, etc. and boils them down to three-panel summaries. There are also more contemporary literature examples, like Beloved and Atonement and a few teen titles like Twilight and The Hunger Games as well.
Brown addresses her 100 titles with a light touch, breaking her three-panel summaries into thematic sections including love, sex, death, and war is hell, among others. Her gentle humor works to make the titles more approachable and more understandable to audiences of all ages.
Long Story Short is perfect for teens who are making their way through required reading lists that feature these titles and need a lift, as well as those who enjoy the cannon but appreciate the parody. If they like books like Texts from Jane Eyre or shows like Drunk History, they’ll appreciate Long Story Short.
The Weirn Books, vol. 1: Be Wary of the Silent Woods by Svetlana Chmakova
JY / Yen Press
Publication Date: June 16, 2020
Ailis Maeve Thorton lives in a small, seemingly-sleepy town off the coast of New England. Normal people might enjoy its one intersection and its working water well, but this town has an underbelly: it’s home to vampires, shape-shifters, werewolves, and the whole shebang! Ailis herself is a weirn: a witch born with a connection to a guardian spirit. These spirits—known as Astrals—might appear as masses of swirling, pointy energy, but they enjoy chocolate rolls and making messes just like everybody else. And when a spooky-looking maybe-Astral starts haunting the woods around her supernatural school, it’s up to Ailis and her friends to save the day.
Beloved graphic novelist Svetlana Chmakova takes a break from her acclaimed Berrybrook Middle School series and, in doing so, trades the ills of middle school drama for the explosive suspense of the paranormal world. Chmakova’s trademark art style expands beyond the minimalism seen in Awkward and Brave; the quirky characters now enjoy spooky scenery, magnificent magical effects, and masterful panel work.
Fans of the Berrybrook Middle School comics will undoubtedly enjoy Chmakova’s new offering, but if you’re even a little bit interested in anime-esque artwork and dark, magical adventure, you don’t want to miss The Weirn Books.
Phoolan Devi, Rebel Queen by Claire Fauvel
Publication Date: April 15, 2020
Phoolan Devi, Rebel Queen is based on Phoolan Devi’s 1996 memoir I, Phoolan Devi: The Autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen. Phoolan was sold at age 11 to become the wife of an older man, and she ran away after he raped her. Phoolan’s choices as a runaway were limited so she joined a gang of bandits and eventually became their bandit queen.
Phoolan’s story is not an easy read, but it is a necessary read. At times, it is hard to believe that this heartbreaking story is true because of the horrors Phoolan faced in her short life. Despite all that she endured, Phoolan went on to be elected to Parliament twice before being assassinated at age 37 by a man seeking revenge for murders committed by Phoolan when she was a bandit. Trigger warnings include rape and abuse.
Fauvel’s goal was to tell Phoolani’s story while remaining faithful to I, Phoolan Devi. Fauvel achieves this as the sheer horror of Phoolani’s life is evident and heartrending through the emotive illustrations and choice of colors. Many critiques of this graphic novel disapprove of Fauvel’s lack of rebuke for Phoolani’s actions, but since it is based on Phoolani’s memoir, there is no need to do so. In the forward, Fauvel says “Phoolan embodies strength, courage, and tenacity.” Readers can draw their own conclusions about Phoolan as a human being while also seeing her importance as an inspiring woman in history.
Recommend this to readers who have enjoyed James Tynion IV’s Something Is Killing the Children and The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado. Readers might also enjoy Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan or 2018’s A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi.
Naomi: Season One by Brian Michael Bendis, David F. Walker, and Jamal Campbell
Wonder Comics / DC Comics
Publication Date: October 29, 2019
After Superman pays her small northwestern town an unexpected visit, Naomi begins investigating what happened last time a superpowered person came to her town and what that might have to do with her own mysterious origins. Naomi’s journey is a fresh and exciting take on a classic superhero origin story. When attempts to get information about her birth from her adoptive parents lead to a dead end, Naomi finds possible answers about who she is from an unlikely source—the town mechanic, who might just be hiding some superpowered secrets of his own.
Drawn beautifully by Jamal Campbell, the art explodes off the page with a vibrancy that makes each panel engaging, while also highlighting and paying wonderful attention to smaller aspects of Naomi’s appearance, including the head wrap she wears at night and her locs. Naomi is a teenage Black girl in a predominately white town with two white adoptive parents, so the attention paid to Naomi’s Blackness and her sense of otherness makes her quest to figure out the history of her past and where she belongs all the more vital.
The story does an amazing job of fleshing out the characters in Naomi’s world, and readers get a real sense of who Naomi is and what she’s capable of. She is a fresh, fun, relatable addition to the DC universe, and the time taken to create a character-building depiction of what her daily life and her relationship with her adoptive parents and friends look like really helps to establish this as a book with great potential and a wonderful addition to any library.
Readers who liked Ms. Marvel, Runaways, or Teen Titans: Raven might enjoy this one as well.
Camp Spirit by Axelle Lenoir
Top Shelf / IDW Publishing
Publication Date: March 23, 2020
It’s 1994, and grungy Elodie’s mother is making her spend her last stretch before college working as a counselor at a Quebec summer camp. Elodie expects to hate it: her cheery co-counselors, the obnoxious kids, the co-ed toilets, the open showers, the creepy Camp Chief, all of it. But, reluctantly, she finds that she doesn’t. She has a knack for managing her rambunctious group of redheads and a surprise spark with “perfect” Catherine. She’s also drawn to whatever strange thing is happening in the woods at night.
Camp Spirit reads like Lumberjanes crossed with the movie Wet Hot American Summer. The book balances laugh-out-loud gags, such as one child’s constant inappropriate comments, with the tenderness of a budding queer romance and a bananas paranormal subplot. The artwork is bright and expressive, particularly in the characters’ eyes, and there is a lot of great coloring with dappled light and shade.
Recommend this book to teen readers into ‘90s nostalgia like that found in Heavy Vinyl by Carly Usdin and summer camp stories like Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash or the older Lumberjanes stories.
Runaways, vol. 5: Canon Fodder by Rainbow Rowell and Andrés Genolet
Publication Date: September 22, 2020
Karolina Dean and Nico Minoru have been experimenting with costumed crime fighting, which may have led to the Hostel (the Runaways’ underground home) being compromised. With nowhere else to stay, they take up residence with a Los Angeles-based superhero, Doc Justice, who has been the leader of many iterations of teen superhero groups known as the J-Team. Chase, Victor, Molly, and even Gib join in on the costumed superheroics, and Gert is left out as the Runaways become the new J-Team.
Canon Fodder collects a complete story arc from the current revival of Runaways, and it can be read without much context beyond knowing the characters from either earlier comics or the Runaways TV show. It is the first time in their long history that the Runaways have come close to resembling a typical Marvel superhero team, but in keeping with the themes of the series, there is a dark side to the adults they choose to trust.
This is an easy recommendation to make for fans of the Hulu show. Give it to those who enjoy the dysfunctional family aspect of Umbrella Academy or the humor and superhero team antics of West Coast Avengers by Kelly Thompson.