Column by Rob Salkowitz
Posted by Rob Salkowitz on December 9, 2019 @ 9:48 pm CT
2019 saw an acceleration of both the commercial and cultural trends that have driven the graphic novel segment. Outside of the booming manga market, which will be covered elsewhere on ICv2, the biggest headline has to be the continuing dominance of the young reader, teen and young adult segments, embodied by the jaw-dropping multi-million copy first print runs of new works from Raina Telgemeier and Dav Pilkey. That’s made Scholastic the 800-pound gorilla of the space, and it’s also created a huge backdraft for other publishers to come in with their own original graphic works aimed at this apparently insatiable audience.
All these publishers are also leaning heavily into traditionally underrepresented topics, with a bunch of high-quality titles oriented toward LGBTQ and gender-fluid themes, and casts of characters who mirror America’s most diverse generation. We’re past the point where this approach is treated as a novelty or done for political reasons. First Second’s award-winning Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, which will certainly show up on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year, is a straightforward teenage romance drama that just happens to feature a queer protagonist and supporting cast.
Among standalone superhero franchises, there’s basically Batman and everyone else. DC has kept the pump primed with collections of the Dark Knight’s latest adventures, with the White Knight and The Batman Who Laughs leading the way. Only Marvel’s Star Wars shows anything resembling this kind of persistent drawing power on the book charts. Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer and of course Mike Mignola’s Hellboy held Dark Horse’s place in this category, along with Umbrella Academy.
The graphic novel adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on the Nan A. Talese imprint of Doubleday, another sales success in 2019, benefited from the trifecta of Atwood’s own popularity, the media tie-in with the ongoing series on Hulu, and the timeliness of the dystopic subject matter. That wasn’t the only literary work to get a strong-selling graphic version. Anne Frank’s Diary, from Pantheon (Random House) and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Collins) also appeared on the charts, benefiting from the evergreen popularity of both works with the crucial middle years/YA audience.
Drawn and Quarterly also gave us a beautiful edition of Seth’s Clyde Fans, bringing together a story that Seth began telling over two decades ago. Between that and last year’s Berlin, Jason Lutes’ decades-in-the-making historical epic, one gets the impression that deadlines at D&Q are fairly relaxed. One could easily see Rusty Brown, Clyde Fans, They Called Us Enemy, Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow (D&Q), or any of a dozen notable graphic novels from this year getting shortlisted for major awards.
Fantagraphics Books brought out its usual list of excellent editions, including Simon Hansellman’s Bad Gateway and a new collection of work from Charles Burns, Free S**t, but may have to wait until the hotly-anticipated second volume of My Favorite Thing is Monsters hits the shelves, hopefully in 2020, to repeat that title’s massive sales success. New York Review of Books, which has been in the literary comics business since 2016, expanded its catalog this year with a bunch of interesting domestic and international titles, including Frank Santoro’s Pittsburgh, my pick for the book that most moved the needle from a visual perspective this year.
Finally, as I observed a month or two ago, European comics are finding their way to US audiences in greater numbers than ever. Though there wasn’t a single breakout sales success, the European publishers report stronger aggregate sales in the U.S. market, with total sales of comics expected to surpass children’s books as the biggest overall category for the first time ever.
Beyond the sales numbers, one overall observation that I’ve made from reading stacks and stacks of graphic novels for my upcoming "Best of 2019" list at Forbes is that the overall quality of the art and visual storytelling is suffering a bit in the mad rush to bring mainstream work to market. This isn’t to say the art is bad; some of it is quite good. Certainly everything mentioned here is. But some publishers seem to be satisfied with a baseline level of competent cartooning, done mostly in a simpler style, as long as the stories themselves are strong and/or fit the market category or formula that they’re going for.
The exceptions to this are the collections done by DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image and the other companies whose primary business is comics produced by teams of professionals, and by the small presses who sweat the details and give their artists the time and attention to craft their work.
solid review in the New York Times in November, where the reviewer made no mention at all of the art, or that the book was a graphic novel at all. I mean, we can call that a win, but…
2019 was a great year for graphic novels, and the 2020s look bright for the format. For the boom to continue, though, publishers (and critics) should remember that comics are a visual medium first and foremost, not just prose-with-pictures or a platform for brand expansion. Too many books with rushed or indifferent artwork won’t necessarily kill the golden goose, but it will definitely take the shine off after a while.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is the author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.