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The Day the Klan Came to Town in Publishers Weekly 2021 Graphic Novel Critics Poll— Honorable Mention

Publishers Weekly

The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Mariner) by Alison Bechdel lands on the top spot of PW’s annual Graphic Novel Critics Poll, garnering seven votes from a panel of 15 critics. A groundbreaking queer author and a true household name in contemporary comics, Bechdel is best known for her widely acclaimed 2006 graphic family memoir Fun Home.

In The Secret to Superhuman Strength, her long-anticipated third memoir, Bechdel celebrates the fads and fanaticism of fitness culture—including her own obsession with physical self-improvement—using the phenomenon as a lens through which to examine both queer and American culture writ large. Bechdel aligns her own drive for fitness with an equally intense craving for a deeper spiritual development, turning her attention to the works of such 18th century essayists as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Dorothy Coleridge, offering the reader a meditation on personal development, mortality, and a contemporary path to a sense of enlightenment.


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Bechdel draws her athletic pursuits in trademark clear-line, expressive character drawings, jumping from her childhood obsession with “boys’” sneakers and back-of-the-comic book strong-man ads to an adult fixation on aerobics, feminist-driven martial arts, and the solitary, almost philosophical activities of skiing and cycling—and her love for the athletic apparel and gear associated with them. Woven throughout the book are portraits and deep examinations of writers who also sought enlightenment through exertion of the body, including John Keats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Adrienne Rich, and Jack Kerouac. The book was also named a PW Best Book of 2021.

“Bechdel cleverly hides great truths within light-hearted humor about struggles with her own physical and mental self-improvement,” writes critic John DiBello, adding that “in this age of sheltering in place,” the memoir’s focus on a sense of community and the escape found in fitness, provides readers a sense of “true joy and inspiration.” PW reviews editor Meg Lemke writes: “Bechdel’s impeccable artwork adroitly captures facial expression as easily as the twists of a bike ride mapped across a double-page spread.” Critic Shaenon Garrity adds that Bechdel “turns her ruthlessly intelligent gaze on herself, using physical fitness as an entry point to explore the fundamental challenges of being alive.” And, says critic Glen Downey, “Her manic commitment to exercise fads is presented with the warmth and humility that make us love Bechdel.”

Notably, this is the 15th year conducting this poll, and Bechdel also won the inaugural critics poll in 2006. A full list of past year’s winners runs at the end of this article.


Coming in at close second place is Run: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, L. Fury, and Nate Powell (Abrams), with six votes, which continues the story of the life and political activism of the late John Lewis. Published after Congressman Lewis’ death, but mostly scripted under his supervision, the story picks up during the turbulent 1960s after the events chronicled in Lewis’ bestselling March graphic memoir series, with a new artist, L. Fury, following in the fluid drawing style that Powell introduced in the previous volumes. Lewis’ “landmark memoir continues in the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Acts, as the rise of Black Nationalism, Pan Africanism, and the Vietnam war create new challenges to his leadership role at SNCC,” writes PW senior news editor Calvin Reid.

In the book, Lewis charts how he found the strength and tactics to transform his committed grassroots activism into a historic run for political office. Critic Glen Downey writes that the book’s inspirational testament is particularly “timely given our contemporary moment,” noting that even in the aftermath of his death, Lewis’ story speaks truth to power, in a work that is both direct and accessible. The narrative, critic Rob Clough writes, is “funny, poignant, and doesn’t mince words,” emphasizing that Fury and Powell’s “naturalistic art captures the era perfectly.”

The PW Graphic Novel Critics Poll is compiled by asking participating critics to list up to 10 trade book releases they consider the best graphic novel and comics works of the year. The book receiving the most votes wins; and we share the remaining top vote-recipients. Titles listed as Honorable Mentions each received a single vote. Taking part in this year’s poll are PW graphic novel reviewers Gilcy Aquino, Chris Barsanti, Maurice Boyer, Rob Clough, Jennifer de Guzman, John DiBello, Glen Downey, Shaenon Garrity, Rob Kirby, Cheryl Klein, Maia Kobabe, Samantha Riedel, and Masha Zhdanova. Also participating are PW Graphic Novels Reviews editor Meg Lemke and PW senior news editor Calvin Reid.


Third place, with four votes, goes to No One Else by R. Kikuo Johnson (Fantagraphics), his first graphic novel in 16 years following his celebrated 2005 debut, The Night Fisher. The new book proved worth the wait, says critic Cheryl Klein, offering a “spare and haunting story of grown siblings grappling with their father’s passing,” in which a “family comes apart and together against a backdrop of burning sugar cane fields in Hawaii.” Johnson, a frequent New Yorker cover artist, allows his precise artwork to carry the book’s narrative details, using spare dialogue in carefully crafted moments imbued with glowing colors that result in a “realistic, beautifully rendered tale of painful family dynamics,” Reid writes. The novella-length work packs long-lasting effect, writes PW graphic novel reviews editor Meg Lemke. The book, she writes, “lingers in the way a profoundly shot short film can,” and achieves an artistic “gaze that’s both intimate and cinematic.” No One Else was also named a PW Best Book of 2021.


The annual Critics Poll also highlights some trends in the graphic novel category. In the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, comic books and graphic novels continued to suffer distribution delays. In addition, social gatherings and pop culture conventions that typically bring together cartoonists, fans and publishers were once again held online for the most part, although some major events, such as New York Comic Con and AnimeNYC, bucked that trend, holding in-person events and that attracted big crowds despite continued concern over Covid-19.

Clough writes that “especially in the world of alternative comics” the isolation among artists “has taken a staggering toll,” leaving it “harder for young artists to make themselves known [just as social media platforms] alter their algorithms to favor video content over static images.” Despite these challenges, Clough applauds how the “international comics community’s borders continue to shrink.” Translations of foreign language comics continue to make up a significant percentage of new work, including titles published by “academic and indie publishers who are venturing into the graphic form and find these turnkey ready [foreign-language] properties,” writes Lemke.

Much like other publishing categories, graphic novels remain in demand as consumers look for books and other content to help them make it through the pandemic, notes Reid. Despite a global pandemic that has transformed nearly every aspect of life, sales of comics periodicals and graphic novels in North America continue to climb..

Nevertheless, as the holiday shopping season approaches, supply chain breakdowns continue to disrupt comics and graphic novel distribution, delaying releases and order fulfillment, and putting bookstores and gift-giving in peril. The ever-shifting pub dates of many books have become a “mess,” reports Kirby, who quipped that his favorite graphic novel of 2021 didn’t make this year’s critics poll because the book’s release has been bumped to next year.


Cyclopedia Exotica by Aminder Dhaliwal (Drawn & Quarterly)

“The lives of ten characters in the same city intertwine as each grapples with living in an otherized body. Their physical differences are fetishized, marketed to, discriminated against, and misunderstood, as bodies are in our own world…Dhaliwal is such a deft and clever storyteller! This book made me giggle and made me think, and it fueled my own determination to continue pushing for real social change.” – MK

And Now I Spill the Family Secrets by Margaret Kimball (HarperOne)

“The visual canvas of Kimball’s graphic novel is completely stunning, especially in how she draws the people, places, documents, maps, and rememberings that constitute her family’s difficult history.” – GD

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden by Mannie Murphy (Fantagraphics)

“A bracing, fearless, and personal history and excoriation of racism, white supremacy, and human exploitation in Portland, Oregon. The bleeding watercolors give it the feel of a personal journal, but Murphy’s relentlessly probing point of view is exacting and righteous.” – RC

My Begging Chart by Keiler Roberts (Drawn & Quarterly)

“Roberts’ snapshots of funny, mundane moments again cover both making art and growing small humans—the absurdity within motherhood and creative work intertwine beautifully in her comics—which feel both immediately recognizable and fabulously offbeat. But in this volume Roberts also more profoundly takes on the isolation that her degenerative illness and the reality of the pandemic find her family in.” – ML

Stone Fruit by Lee Lai (Fantagraphics)

“Lai’s graphic novel about the intertwined lives of three women who dote on the same child is remarkable for the way it explores the transformations taking place in their relationships.” – GD

Fictional Father by Joe Ollmann (Drawn & Quarterly)

“An unusual comic-dramatic narrative that keeps readers on their toes; Ollmann never telegraphs where things are going, and his characters are fully fleshed out and believable.” – RK


Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez (Simon and Schuster)

“A riveting combination of graphic memoir and inspirational scholarship, Wake is a dogged effort to document women-led slave revolts that sends Dr. Hall on a quest that begins in 1712 in New York City and leads her to vast (and restricted) 18th century slave trade archives in Britain.” – CR

Discipline by Dash Shaw (New York Review Comics)

“Shaw, a master of color comics, shifts to his black & white roots to deliver this intimate story of a Quaker Union soldier in the American Civil War and his sister at home. Using the style of drawings from this era and an epistolary narrative technique, Shaw conveys both a uniquely individual and universal experience with war.” – RC

COVID Chronicles: A Comics Anthology, edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson (Graphic Mundi/PSU Press)

“This collection of 60+ pieces on life under COVID-19 spans triumphs and tragedies, despair to determination by a varied and complementary cast of contributors. The reader will find small gems of brilliance and sadness herein this mosaic of global experience.” – JD

Tunnels by Rutu Modan, trans. from the Hebrew by Ishai Mishory (Drawn & Quarterly)

“While Modan isn’t usually thought of as a humorist, this brilliant mash-up of Herge’s Tintin adventures and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict goes for the throat with nasty but genuinely funny satire that lands because of how true to life it is.” – RC

The Waiting by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, trans. from the Korean by Janet Hong (Drawn & Quarterly)

“An exploration of how war fractures families in told in emotive linework that is as compelling as Gendry-Kim’s heartbreaking narrative.” – GD

Red Rock Baby Candy by Shira Spector (Fantagraphics)

“Documenting her father’s illness and her thwarted attempts to carry a child, Spector’s lush, expressive mixed media collages make poetry from loss.” – CK

Save It for Later: Promises, Parenthood, and the Urgency of Protest by Nate Powell (Abrams)

“Powell’s heartfelt, lushly drawn graphic essays from the front lines of anti-Trump protests express the fears and frustrations of raising children in an age of bullies.” – SG

Factory Summers by Guy Delisle, trans. from the French by Helge Dascher and Rob Aspinall (Drawn & Quarterly)

“Delisle is wonderful in bringing his trademark awkwardness to examine his own adolescent experience as a factory worker, in a way that takes an insightful look at issues of class, misogyny, and the dynamics of the workplace.” – GD

Let’s Not Talk Anymore by Weng Pixin (Drawn & Quarterly)

“Pixin explores her matrilineal history through a vivid, colorful patchwork of family stories in this small, elegant treasure.” – SG

Himawari House by Harmony Becker (First Second)

“The story of three girls from different countries who live together for a year in Japan, and their different relationships to language, culture, family, and love. Beautifully drawn and beautifully told.” – MZ


American Cult, edited by Robyn Chapman (Silver Sprocket)

Artemisia by Nathalie Ferlut and Tamia Baudouin, trans. from the French by Maëlle Doliveux (Beehive)

Asadora! Vol. 3 by Naoki Urasawa, trans. from the Japanese by John Werry (Viz)

Ballad for Sophie by Filipe Melo and Juan Cavia, trans. from the Portuguese by Gabriela Soares (Top Shelf)

Beast Complex by Paru Itagaki, trans. from the Japanese by Tomo Kimura (Viz)

Box of Bones: Book One by Ayize Jama-Everett and John Jennings (Rosarium)

Boys Run the Riot by Keito Gaku, trans. from the Japanese by Leo McDonagh (Kodansha)

Bubble by Jordan Morris, Sarah Morgan, Tony Cliff, and Natalie Riess (First Second)

Chainsaw Man, Vol. 6 by Tatsuki Fujimoto, trans. from the Japanese by Amanda Haley (Viz)

A Chance by Cristina Durán and Miguel Giner Bou, trans. from the Spanish by Katherine Rucker (Graphic Mundi)

Chartwell Manor by Glenn Head (Fantagraphics)

Crisis Zone by Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics)

Crude by Pablo Fajardo, Sophie Tardy-Joubert, and Damien Roudeau, trans. from the French by Hannah Chute (Graphic Mundi)

The Day the Klan Came to Town by Bill Campbell and Bizhan Khodabandeh (PM)

Destroy All Monsters: A Reckless Book by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image)

Djeliya: A West African Fantasy Epic by Juni Ba (TKO)

Ex Libris by Matt Madden (Uncivilized)

Failure Biographies by Johnny Damm (The Operating System)

Far Sector by N.K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell (DC)

Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End, Vol. 1 by Kanehito Yamada and Tsukasa Abe, trans. from the Japanese by Misa (Viz)

Harley Quinn Black + White + Red by Various (DC)

I’m in Love with the Villainess, Vol. 1 by Inori, Aonoshimo, and Hagata, trans. from the Japanese by Joshua Hardy (Seven Seas)

Infinitum: An Afrofuturist Tale by Tim Fielder (Amistad)

It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940–1980, edited by Dan Nadel (New York Review Comics)

Lore Olympus, Vol. 1 by Rachel Smythe (Del Rey)

Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula by Koren Shadmi (Life Drawn)

Metax by Antoine Cossé (Fantagraphics)

Mike Mignola: The Quarantine Sketchbook by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse)

Montana Diary by Whit Taylor (Silver Sprocket)

Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana by Brian K. Mitchell, Barrington S. Edwards, and Nick Weldon (The Historic New Orleans Collection)

Moon of the Snowblind: Spirit Lake Massacre by Gary Kelley (Ice Cube Press)

My Love Mix-Up! by Wataru Hinekure and Aruko, trans. from the Japanese by Jan Mitsuko Cash (Viz)

Nightwing, Vol. 1: Leaping Into the Light by Tom Taylor and Bruno Redondo (DC)

Noir Is the New Black, edited by Fabrice Sapolsky with TC Harris (Fair Square)

The Other History of The DC Universe by John Ridley (DC)

Passport by Sophia Glock (Little Brown)

Persephone: Hades’ Torment by Allison Shaw (Seven Seas)

The Pleasure of the Text by Sami Alwani (Conundrum)

Rebecca and Lucie in the Case of the Missing Neighbor by Pascal Girard, trans. from the French by Aleshia Jensen (Drawn & Quarterly)

Red Flowers by Yoshiharu Tsuge, trans. from the Japanese by Ryan Holmberg (Drawn & Quarterly)

A Revolution in Three Acts: The Radical Vaudeville of Bert Williams, Eva Tanguay, and Julian Eltinge by David Hajdu and John Carey (Columbia Univ.)

Robo Sapiens: Tales of Tomorrow by Toranosuke Shimada, trans. from the Japanese by Adrienne Beck (Seven Seas)

Ruining Your Cat’s Life by Lauren Barnett (Kilgore)

Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke (Pantheon)

Sensor by Junji Ito, trans. from the Japanese by Jocelyne Allen (Viz)

Shadow Life by Hiromi Goto and Ann Xu (First Second)

The Shiatsung Project by Brigitte Archambault, trans. from the French by Aleshia Jensen (Bdang)

Special Topics in Being a Human by S. Bear Bergman and Saul Freedman-Lawson (Arsenal Pulp)

Spider-Woman, Vol. 2: King in Black by Karla Pacheco and Pere Perez (Marvel)

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond by Dave Sim and Carson Grubaugh (Living the Line)

Street Cop by Robert Coover and Art Spiegelman (isollari)

Thirsty Mermaids by Kat Leyh (Simon and Schuster)

The Trojan Women by Rosanna Bruno and Anne Carson (New Directions)

Tuki: Fight for Fire by Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)

Visual Crime by Jerry Moriarty (Fantagraphics)

What Unites Us by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner (First Second)

When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers by Ken Krimstein (Bloomsbury Publishing)

The Day the Klan Came to Town