Comic shops were shuttered by the hundreds. Cartoonists canceled long-planned bookstore tours, and the grand gatherings from San Diego Comic-Con on down became virtual versions of themselves. Given such obstacles, 2020 was the year that the comics industry could have taken cover, merely trying to survive.
Yet graphic novelists and other comics storytellers adapted and rose to ongoing challenges. Authors hunkering down at home became Zoom ’toonists, sometimes drawing remotely for fans, sometimes reading their works to school-age audiences in quarantine. And by the fall, North American graphic novel sales were up more than 40 percent, boosted significantly by manga and the “Dog Man” publishing empire of Dav Pilkey.
Here were five of the main comics trends that helped define 2020, along with the books that propelled the industry to new heights:
1. Comics representation mattered.
Amid the year’s reckoning over race in America, graphic novels continued to give voice to once-underrepresented stories, and creators of color drew critical acclaim.
Shortly before George Floyd’s death sparked international protests, Gene Luen Yang and artist Gurihiru released the graphic novel “Superman Smashes the Klan.” Inspired by a ‘40s radio serial, the masterful comic centers on two Chinese American teenagers who must help the Man of Steel battle the KKK’s racial violence shortly after World War II.
Other heralded culturally diverse stories included “Almost American Girl,” Robin Ha’s illustrated memoir about suddenly relocating from South Korea to Alabama as a teenager; “When Stars Are Scattered,” in which Victoria Jamieson helps tell Omar Mohamed’s true story of growing up in a Somali refugee camp; and “Long Way Down,” as Jason Reynolds’ free-verse story got a graphic-novel adaptation with artist Danica Novgorodoff. Plus, “Class Act,” Jerry Craft’s latest book about middle-school life, arrived months after his “New Kid” won the Newbery Medal.
2. Comics fed the quarantining soul.
As lockdown meant shutting down most of our cultural attractions and distractions, graphic novels stepped up with vicarious thrills.
As in-person comics conventions from coast to coast toppled like dominos, creators and fans were missing these bonding pilgrimages. And one of the best recollections of this life was Adrian Tomine’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist” — released during the summer’s virtual Comic-Con — in which the acclaimed author offers sharply felt insights into how he experiences this specific culture.
Or if you were missing sports, you could score a copy of Yang’s “Dragon Hoops,” a study of a real-life Bay Area high-school basketball team that learns about itself during a championship season. or Sloane Leong’s “A Map to the Sun,” a coming-of-age hoops tale.
And while much live music went by the wayside in 2020, comics offered such nostalgic stories as “Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns & Moonage Dreams,” centering on the rocker’s Ziggy Stardust persona, and “Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California,” as Dave Chisholm and Peter Markowski revisit the jazz saxophonist’s stint in Los Angeles in the mid-’40s.
3. Politics was front and center.
Comics collections that lampooned President Trump were plentiful, including Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” book “Lewser!,” Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World” release “Life in the Stupidverse” and Ruben Bolling’s “Tom the Dancing Bug” compendium “Into the Trumpverse.”
Yet broader and more historical takes on politics were also abundant, including R. Sikoryak’s “Constitution Illustrated”; “Drawing the Vote,” a guide to voting rights from Tommy Jenkins and Kati Lacker; and from World Citizen Comics the timely “Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Graphic Novel,” which smartly spotlights the living document’s relevance to presidential impeachment, a peaceful transition of White House power and other modern concerns.
The most powerful of them all was “Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio,” a deep journalistic dive into the still-resonant ‘70s tragedy by Ohio native Derf Backderf (“My Friend Dahmer”).
4. LGBTQ representation keeps growing.
Trung Le Nguyen delivered a sparkling debut with his graphic novel “The Magic Fish,” about the child of Vietnamese immigrants who teaches through fairy tales yet wrestles with how to come out to his family.
Also noteworthy were “You Brought Me the Ocean,” by Alex Sanchez and Julie Maroh, “The Times I Knew I Was Gay,” by Eleanor Crewes, Sophie Yanow’s hitchhiking-toward-discovery tale “The Contradictions,” and Noelle Stevenson’s memoir, “The Fire Never Goes Out.”
5. Youth was served.
As young readers attended school from home, they could take breaks with deft new illustrated literature, much of it almost nostalgically set in schools. The year’s best YA books included Terri Libenson’s “Becoming Brianna,” Lisa Brown’s “The Phantom Twin” and Maria Scrivan’s “Nat Enough.”
Then there were Pilkey (“Dog Man” and “Cat Kid” books) and Jeff Kinney (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Deep End”), who helped power the kids’ market with relentlessly strong sales — a trend that shows no sign of flagging in 2021.