One of the year’s most gripping works focused on a family glued to the TV. Oxygen Mask (Faber) charts a boy’s panicked thoughts as the pandemic and George Floyd’s death dominate the news, while his ill father coughs and coughs “like something in him is breaking up and breaking down at the same time”. American YA writer Jason Reynolds lets his stream of consciousness unspool over three long sentences and 384 pages, while artist Jason Griffin shows blotches, bricks, buildings, masked faces and scenes of incarceration and apocalypse. It’s a brilliant collaborative effort: you can inhale it at speed or linger over every startling page.
This year also saw two great full-length debuts from writers who had previously excelled with shorter work. In Alison (Serpent’s Tail), Lizzy Stewart uses a mix of sketches and prose to relay the life of a woman who falls for a self-regarding painter before finding her own way as an artist. Like her affecting debut collection It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be, this is about friendship, possibility and the passing of time. It is a vivid and lyrical work, but there’s sharpness and anger here too, as well as real emotional clout.
Kate Beaton, meanwhile, made her name with the perceptive and playful comics series Hark! A Vagrant. Ducks (Jonathan Cape) is very different work: a fierce, thoughtful and revealing memoir about the Albertan oil industry, which puts money in the pockets of workers (she used it to pay off her student loan) and petrol in car tanks but leaves great scars on both the landscape of northern Canada and the people who staff its giant machines and equipment rigs.
Jim Woodring has been drawing surreal comics for 40 years, and One Beautiful Spring Day (Fantagraphics) combines previous works with new material to produce a single sinuous epic. Woodring’s wordless, woodcut-style panels follow the adventures of a bucktoothed bipedal creature called Frank, but they don’t so much tell a story as present a bewildering series of events. Characters shrink, explode, eat each other, tunnel into the ground and travel through space. Dreamlike yet bracingly physical, this is a book with its own hypnotic vernacular, a psychedelic vision of perseverance, hedonism and rebirth.
Another Frank appears in Luke Healy’s The Con Artists (Faber), but this one seems closer to home: Healy’s Frank is, like him, a London-based Irishman with a standup career. When his friend Giorgio breaks his arm, Frank moves in with him, but their relationship feels the strain. Healy’s bittersweet portrayal of a troubled friendship is full of finely observed detail and deadpan humour, but it’s also a deeply felt exploration of happiness, trust and the lies we tell our friends and ourselves.
Nick Drnaso’s eerie visions of American suburbia saw his previous work, Sabrina, become the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Booker. If Sabrina showed how one grim event could spark a succession of conspiracy theories, Acting Class (Granta) turns the refraction of reality into a disorienting group exercise. A drama group play out everyday scenes before progressing into ambitious scenarios involving sinister intruders, thuggish police and lonely boat trips. From its cast’s blank stares to the muted but sickly colour palette, Acting Class is an ominous and compelling exploration of the imagination’s darker side.
In Michael DeForge’s Birds of Maine (Drawn & Quarterly), perhaps his finest work yet, he takes us to an advanced bird society that lives on the moon. Here cardinals, frigatebirds, owls, kiwis and penguins feed on the “universal worm” and browse an internet of terraformed fungus until a human astronaut crashlands in their midst. The surreal abstraction of DeForge’s bright panels gradually reveals an intriguing world built with flair, love and attention to detail.
The five stories in Megan Kelso’s Who Will Make the Pancakes (Fantagraphics) showcase a wonderful range of topics and styles. A pregnancy is overshadowed by Watergate, a child is raised by cats and a teenage camping trip turns sinister, while the artwork veers from black-and-white cartoons to perky watercolours. Kelso shows families stretching, fraying and holding on as children grow up too fast and adults yearn for what could have been in a dark, sharp feast of observation.
Anyone who’s squinted doubtfully at a parenting manual will relish The Joy of Quitting by Keiler Roberts (Drawn & Quarterly), which skewers family life with merciless and very funny directness. But while the Chicago writer’s latest memoir features plenty of domestic carnage, including toppling toilet brushes and brutal toddler putdowns, it also ranges wide, taking in email anxiety, spa etiquette and dolphin-riding monkeys to build a vivid life from scattered moments.
Yamada Murasaki’s accounts of motherhood in Talk to My Back (translated by Ryan Holmberg, Drawn & Quarterly) were first serialised in Japan in the early 1980s. This groundbreaking alternative manga moves with a spare poetry through daily routines and moments of solitude as a woman wrangles her children, chafes at the limitations of the housewife’s role and wonders where half her life has gone.
Days of Sand by Aimée de Jongh (translated by Christopher Bradley, SelfMadeHero) follows a young photographer sent by the Farm Security Administration to document the dust bowl, which turned Oklahoma farmland into an arid waste in the 1930s. He learns how to film in the half-light of dust storms and to position starving farmers as props but begins to question his motives in a book that mixes human drama with bleak panoramas and historical photos to great effect.
Popular science and the graphic novel have often worked well together. In Two Heads (Bloomsbury), psychologist Uta Frith and neuroscientist Chris Frith, their son, author Alex Frith, and artist Daniel Locke put their heads together to explore the links between the brain and the mind. The charming artwork and cheery asides help fascinating explanations of priors, voxels, mimicry and more slip down – it’s an idiosyncratic journey rather than a straightforward guide, and all the better for it.
In his Anatomy of Comics (Flammarion), Damien MacDonald offers a winning gallop through the history of the form. Excerpts from early pioneers (Frank King), popular icons (Charles M Schulz) and cult heroes (Moebius) sit alongside essays setting it all in context. There are plenty of gaps but it’s a beautiful collection, with an intimate tone born of enthusiasm, and it offers enough fuel for a lifetime of comics reading.
• To browse all comics and graphic novels included in the Guardian and Observer’s best books of 2022 visit guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.