Released in September during the 50th anniversary year of the 1970 tragedy, Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams ComicArts) by veteran comics journalist Derf Backderf garnered the majority of votes in PW’s annual Graphic Novel Critic’s Poll, receiving eight votes from a panel of 14 comics critics.

In this deeply researched work, Backderf, best known for his Eisner-nominated 2012 graphic nonfiction work My Friend Dahmer, reconstructs the lives and last days of the student activists and bystanders killed when the National Guard fired on unarmed antiwar protesters on the campus of Kent State University. The book presents a nuanced portrait of the equally young National Guardsmen, who were under extreme pressure and suffered from a severe lack of training, while deftly examining the polarized political context, anti-communist paranoia, and rampant government surveillance surrounding the anti-war movement during the Nixon administration. The title was also chosen as a 2020 PW Best Book of the Year.

Calling the title “one of the year's most tragic and insightful books of any genre,” PW comics critic Chris Barsanti praised the “weave of research and personal drama” in a methodical account of the watershed event that critic Rob Clough described as “even-handed but unrelenting.” PW critic Sarah Mirk said the book represents a timely effort to reexamine the events at Kent State during a period in American culture fraught with similar political polarization. Backderf, she said, “illuminates societal dynamics that feel eerily parallel.”

Backderf’s drawing style—closely rendered, muscular black and white figures rich in key historical details from the period—serves to “humanize the victims” as it “breaks down the events with clarity and anger,” wrote PW critic Rob Kirby. The book has extensive citations and footnotes; and Backderf explains his methodology, describing his effort to memorialize the slain students and contravene myths about the victims, who were slandered by popular media of the era. The impact of the Kent State massacre is “painfully relevant today,” wrote PW critic Shaenon Garrity.

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, John DiBello, Glen Downey, Shaenon Garrity, Rob Kirby, Cheryl Klein, Maia Kobabe, Sarah Mirk, and Samantha Riedel. Also participating are PW Graphic Novels Reviews editor Meg Lemke and PW senior news editor Calvin Reid.


Coming up in a close second are two titles that received six votes each: Paying the Land by Joe Sacco (Metropolitan) and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly). Both books were also chosen as PW Best Books of 2020.

Sacco, a comics journalist renowned for reporting from foreign civil conflicts and war zones, offers a deep-dive account of the native Dene people of Northern Canada, whose vast tracts of majestic forest lands filled with mineral resources are also located at the epicenter of the climate change controversy. Indeed, Sacco’s investigation into “a fracking project on Native land is soon eclipsed by the human stories of local indigenous people working to hold their culture and community together,” said Shaenon Garrity. Sacco’s detailed cross-hatched black and white portraiture showcases scenes that are “meticulously reported and drawn with astounding attention to detail,” said Mirk. What begins as a foray into climate politics becomes an elegiac and complicated look at inherited trauma. Sacco, Reid wrote, uncovers the Dene’s “long and tragic history at the hands of the Canadian government… and their efforts to hold onto the legacy of traditional native life as they navigate the benefits and social problems that come with the modern world.”

Tomine takes a biting tone to the comics industry in a snarky, ultimately sincere, graphic memoir that looks back on decades of single-minded devotion to creating innovative comics, while also navigating the mercurial indie comics publishing scene. PW’s graphic novel reviews editor Meg Lemke described the book as a series of “achingly funny, wickedly accurate” vignettes from across his career, filled with plenty of “tantalizingly anonymous score-settling over a long list of industry and personal faux pas that will cause any comics insider to wince—and think twice the next time they open their mouth at a mixer.” Tomine “recounts anecdotes of the awkwardness and racist microaggressions” he’s suffered, but also shares the tender experience of becoming a father in a book “full of heart and pointed self-reflection,” wrote Mirk. The memoir takes a deeper turn when he suffers a medical scare: “by stripping away the fictional gloss of his earlier work and taking a cold hard look at himself, Tomine delivers a starker and even more psychologically lacerating story of self-doubt and artistic insecurity,” wrote Barsanti.


Jim Terry’s debut graphic memoir Come Home, Indio, published as part of the inaugural list from new comics publisher Street Noise Books, stands out with four votes (and was also chosen as a PW Best Book of 2020). “Terry's honest and intricately drawn memoir delves into the challenges of a cross-cultural identity (Native- and Irish-American) and demonstrates great compassion for imperfect parents,” wrote PW critic Cheryl Klein. The artist delves into his “struggle to find connection, and the healing that comes from confronting the self,” PW critic Glen Downey wrote. Terry’s expansive and emotionally raw storytelling takes on “complex family history, identity issues, addiction and recovery,” Lemke said, “it stunned me with its ambition and artistry.”

The Critic’s Poll also highlights trends in the graphic novel category. The Covid-19 pandemic, along with mounting political and social strife throughout the year, created unprecedented challenges for the book industry. Clough called 2020 “a broken year” for comics, muted by the lack of festivals and pop culture conventions to spur excitement around the many promising releases. PW critic Kobabe said “it was much harder to keep up with new releases without going to comic cons and zine fests.” Still, critics once again hailed the ever-increasing diversity of comics creators represented in the field. “Half of my nominations are immigration stories,” noted Klein. “Comics, and especially book format comics, have never been more diverse in genre, and the range of artists creating them, never more various. We are truly beginning to live in a world where there’s a comic or graphic novel easily available that will appeal to any taste in reading,” Reid said.

But it’s still been a tough year. “Much like other physical retailers, comics shops are struggling and concerns about the future of the comics shop direct market are rising in the wake of a series of layoffs at DC Comics, a pillar of the U.S. comics retailer market, that seem to directly threaten the comics shop marketplace,” Reid said. Despite all this, the graphic novel market continues to grow with sales “concentrated once again on YA graphic novels and crossover hits,” said John DiBello. “Now's the time for savvy bookstores (if they haven't already) to find and hire a dedicated and knowledgeable fan of the graphic novel format to maintain a broad store section.”


Big Black: Stand at Attica by Frank “Big Black” Smith, Jared Reinmuth, and Améziane (Archaia)

“America's dark history of fraught relations between the criminal justice system and the African-American community came front and center in 2020. A searing graphic memoir that documents Smith's role as an inmate leader tasked with protecting hostages during the 1971 uprising at New York state’s Attica prison makes a convincing case for how the line between correction and cruelty is often blurred behind bars.” - MB

I Know You Rider: A Memoir, by Leslie Stein (Drawn & Quarterly)

“As the nation faces serious threats to reproductive rights, Stein’s frank retelling of her decision to terminate a pregnancy, and the circumstances of her abortion, is not-so-quietly radical storytelling, despite her meditative, lyrical, light-touch watercolor-enhanced drawings. I found her memoir beautiful and provocative, and it’s lingered with me all year.” – ML

Apsara Engine by Bishakh Som (Feminist Press)

“Som's short science fiction comics are imaginative, beautifully painted, and genuinely push the genre forward.” – SR

Wendy, Master of Art by Walter Scott (Drawn and Quarterly)

“The newest volume in the funny and pointed art school satire follows Wendy's post-grad adventures with Scott's sharp, sure cartooning line and razor-tongued verbal and visual jabs. Despite the (deceptively) simple artwork, this is a very vibrant and moving story with great heart and energy.” – JD


Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru (DC)

“Taking inspiration from a story arc taken from a 1930s Superman radio serial, Yang and Gurihiru craft a gung-ho action story that's also a layered exploration of race, identity and the immigrant experience. The best Superman comic in years.” - SG

The Contradictions by Sophie Yanow (Drawn & Quarterly)

“Yanow's fictionalized coming-of-age story depicts her character Sophie falling under the spell of a radical anarchist vegan companion, but she soon comes to understand that the nuances and complexities of human interaction rarely fall into neat categories. Her blocky art style is sublimely beautiful and expressive.” – RC

Bowie: Stardust, Rayguns, & Moonage Daydreams by Michael Allred, Steve Horton, and Laura Allred (Insight Comics)

“This lush, oversized, psychedelic history of David Bowie is charmingly told and beautifully illustrated by Allred, who combines faithful depictions of personalities with a wild visual style that faithfully tracks Bowie's ever-changing personas and worlds.” – JD

Chasin’ The Bird: Charlie Parker in California by Dave Chisholm (Z2)

“A Jazz academic and musician, as well as a cartoonist, Chisholm makes use of a series of well-known first-person accounts of the life and music of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, one of the most influential musicians in Jazz history, in a series of skillfully illustrated narrative vignettes that provide a nuanced and imaginatively rendered graphic biography of a Black American musical genius.” – CR

Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang (First Second)

“Yang’s story of the memorable 2015 run of Oakland basketball powerhouse Bishop O’Dowd High School (where he was a teacher) to the state championship is an engrossing profile of the team’s multicultural cast of players, a history of the game of basketball, and an endearing account of his own transformation from a sports-hating pop culture nerd to a passionate basketball fan.” - CR

Dracula, Motherf**ker by Alex de Campi and Erica Henderson (Image)

“This entertaining mashup of Victorian-era horror with L.A. crime noir from the 1970s delivers every bit the blood-soaked, penny dreadful one-shot that readers would expect from de Campi, the creative mind behind the Grindhouse series. Henderson’s art strays from the sitcom superheroics of her work on Marvel’s Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to conceive the one of the most hideous takes on the Nosferatu myth in recent memory.” – MB

Welcome to the New World by Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan (Metropolitan)

“An innovative work of graphic journalism that profiles one family's heart-wrenching and sometimes perilous journey from war-torn Syria to Connecticut on the eve of Donald Trump’s election.” - CK

Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Graphic Adaptation by Kurt Vonnegut, Ryan North, and Albert Monteys (Archaia)

“Not necessarily more powerful than Vonnegut's original prose, but a worthy addendum to it, with potent illustrations, useful historical background, and a sense of tragic sarcasm that the master himself would have appreciated.” – CB

The Times I Knew I Was Gay by Eleanor Crewes (Scribner)

“Crewes describes the self-knowledge of her own queerness as a secret envelope that she gave to herself, a message that took her a long time to open. When she finally got to the place of fully accepting herself, it made so many things fall into place.” – MK


Almost American Girl by Robin Ha (Blazer + Bray)

Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada (Iron Circus)

Barking by Lucy Sullivan (Unbound)

BL Metamorphosis by Kaori Tsurutani (Seven Seas)

Blackwood by Hannah Eaton (Myriad)

Breakwater by Katronia Chapman (Avery Hill Publishing)

The Burning Hotels by Thomas Lampion (Birdcage Bottom)

Dancing After TEN by Vivian Chong and Georgia Webber (Fantagraphics)

Dancing at the Pity Party by Tyler Federer (Dial Books)

The Deep and Dark Blue by Niki Smith (Little, Brown)

Displacement by Kiku Hughes (First Second)

Eight-Lane Runaways by Henry McCausland (Fantagraphics)

An Embarrassment of Witches by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan (Top Shelf)

Everything is an Emergency: An OCD Story in Words and Pictures by Jason Adam Katzenstein (HarperPerennial)

The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures by Noelle Stevenson

Glass Town: The Imaginary World of the Brontes by Isabel Greenberg (Abrams)

Goblin Girl by Moa Romanova (Fantagraphics)

The Golden Age by Roxanne Moreil and Cyril Pedrosa (First Second)

Happiness Will Follow by Mike Hawthorne (Archaia)

House of X/Powers of X by Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, and Marte Gracia (Marvel)

The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott by Zoe Thorogood (Avery Hill)

Inappropriate by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized)

Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books by Ken Quattro

J&K by John Pham (Fantagraphics)

Jack Kirby: The Epic Life of the King of Comics by Tom Scioli (Ten Speed)

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera and Celia Moscote (BOOM! Box)

Kusama: A Graphic Biography by Elisa Macellari (Laurence King)

Life on Earth 3: Distant Stars by MariNaomi (Graphic Universe)

Little Lulu: The Fuzzythingus Poopi by John Stanley (D+Q)

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (Random House Graphic)

The Man Without Talent by Yoshiharu Tsuge (New York Review Books)

A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong (First Second)

Mister Invincible: Local Hero by Pascal Jousselin (Magnetic)

Motel Universe 2: Faschion Empire by Joachim Dreschler (Secret Acres)

Naked Body edited by Yan Cong, Jason Li, and R. Orion Martin (Paradise Systems)

Oak Flat by Lauren Redniss (Random House)

Odessa by Jonathan Hill (Oni)

On Ajayi Crowther Street by Elnathan John and Àlàbá Ònájìn (Cassava Republic Press)

Paul at Home by Paul Ragabliati (D+Q)

Paul is Dead by Paolo Baron (Image)

Perfect World by Rie Aruga (Kodansha)

A Quick and Easy Guide to Sex and Disability by A. Andrews

The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud by Kiniko Tsurita (D+Q)

Snapdragon by Kat Leyh (First Second)

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh (Simon & Schuster)

Spellbound by Bisakh Som (Street Noise)

Spring Rain: A Graphic Memoir of Love, Madness, and Revolutions by Andy Warner (Macmillan)

Spy x Family by Tatsuya Endo (Viz)

Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen: Who Killed Jimmy Olsen? by Matt Fraction and Steve Leiber (DC Comics)

Titan by Francois Vigneault (Oni)

Toilet Bound Hanako-kun by Iro Aida (Yen)

Umma's Table by Yeon-Sik Hong (Drawn & Quarterly)

Vision by Julia Gfrörer (Fantagraphics)

We Served the People: My Mother's Stories by Emei Burrell (Simon & Schuster)

What the Font?! A Manga Guide to Western Typeface by Kuniichi Ashiya (Seven Seas)

When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (Dial Books)

Windows on the World by Robert Mailer Anderson, Zack Anderson, and Jon Sack (Fantagraphics)

Year of Zines by Sarah Mirk (Mad Mirk)

You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife edited by Kel McDonald and Andrea Purcell (Iron Circus)


2019: They Called Us Enemy

2018: All the Answers

2017: My Favorite Thing is Monsters

2016: March Book Three

2015: The Sculptor

2014: This One Summer

2013: Boxers and Saints

2012: Building Stories

2011: Hark a Vagrant

2010: Acme Novelty Library #20: Lint

2009: Asterios Polyp

2008: Bottomless Belly Button

2007: Exit Wounds and Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together (Tie)

2006: Fun Home