New York City in the mid-aughts sets the backdrop for stylistically unique graphic narratives on a common theme—women on the precipice of adulthood and the transformative nature of friendships—which tied for the top spot on PW’s annual graphic novel critics poll this year.

Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story by Julia Wertz (Black Dog & Leventhal) and Roaming by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly) each received seven votes from PW’s panel of 15 critics. The dual win highlights the prominence of women cartoonists in contemporary literary graphic novel publishing, from a generation that emerged and matured from the indie zine and web publishing scene that saw its creative heyday during the period in which their books take place.

Wertz’s acerbic wit, which made her a web comics cult favorite, remains in full force in her vulnerable graphic memoir of getting sober as a high-strung 20-something artist—with more than a little help from her friends. Hilariously told anecdotes reveal late-night shenanigans and blackout drinking, the trials of getting over bad boyfriends and out of an illegal basement apartment in Greenpoint, and ultimately the fellowship, support, and healing she found in rehab, group therapy, and pushing past relapses by (reluctantly) embracing support. Cartoony figure drawings contrast with Wertz’s distinctive, detailed renderings of Brooklyn borough storefronts and street life of the period.

Her candid storytelling resists the simple rock-bottom to salvation turnaround narratives often typical of recovery memoir, leaning into the quotidian humor of struggles with addiction. Doing so “reinvents the conversation around addiction and recovery with hilarity and compassion,” writes PW critic Devon Ashby. Throughout, Wertz’s “self-deprecating voice keeps things relatively light, but she pulls no punches,” writes PW critic Chris Burkhalter. “She has a real gift for recounting the many absurdities that life in New York City deals out, but she consistently turns her razor-sharp humor back on herself.”

It's “an addiction story, yes, but really a life story,” writes PW critic Chris Barsanti. “Wertz's tale of her reluctant tripping and falling into some kind of adulthood is snortingly funny and achingly touching.”

Roaming, a sumptuously drawn graphic novel that features a trio of Canadian college students on a revelatory weekend trip to NYC in 2009, marks the second critics poll win for the Tamaki cousins, who also took first place in 2014 with This One Summer. Here, they return to the poignant coming-of-age themes that also won them a Caldecott that year.

Fiona, a flirtatious charmer, joins longtime childhood friends Zoe and Dani when they reunite on a getaway from their respective college lives. The women navigate the city and frictions spark as they adventure into moments of self-discovery. The gently unfolding plot ricochets with spot-on arch dialogue. The evocative, fluid, and painterly art by Jillian Tamaki brings Manhattan’s museums, parks, subway systems, and cityscapes to life.

“The Tamaki cousins do it again,” says Burkhalter, in this “jaunty page-turner with a lot of heart.”

It's an episodic storyline punctuated by “true-to-life moments about the vibrance, awkwardness, and messiness of young adulthood,” writes PW critic DW McKinney. “Somehow at once immense and pithy,” the narrative captures how, when traveling at that age, “the smallest moments and emotions feel world-alteringly large,” writes PW critic Michelle Hart.

While the small-scale drama pulls readers along, they’ll find themselves pausing to gaze at the softly colored, luminescent scenes. “As always, Jillian Tamaki's art is a standout,” PW critic Masha Zhdanova confirms.

Impossible People and Roaming were both among the best comics and graphic novels of 2023 selected by PW.

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 or books receiving the most votes wins, and we also share the second- and third-place vote-gatherers, as well as all remaining recipients of multiple votes as Honorable Mentions. Taking part in the 2023 poll are PW graphic novel reviewers Devon Ashby, Chris Barsanti, Chris Burkhalter, Jennifer de Guzman, John DiBello, Shaenon Garrity, Michelle Hart, Ash Holland, Rob Kirby, Cheryl Klein, DW McKinney, Tahneer Oksman, and Masha Zhdanova. Also participating are PW Graphic Novels reviews editor Meg Lemke and PW’s More to Come podcast co-host Calvin Reid.

Second and Third Place

Following close behind with six votes each, Blood of the Virgin by Sammy Harkham (Pantheon) and The Talk by Darrin Bell (Holt) tied for second place. Both titles were also named among the best comics and graphic novels of 2023 by PW. The Talk was the sole graphic work on the top ten books of the year across the magazine.

Harkham, editor of the influential periodical anthology Kramer’s Ergot and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner, returned this year with a much-anticipated graphic novel, Blood of the Virgin, an epic study of ambition set in 1970s Hollywood that trains its lens on an antihero director of grindhouse gore-horror flicks. In between the foibles of this immigrant filmmaker who dreams big—and is estranged from his wife and family while he chases quixotically after a purist artistic vision—run capsule histories of movie-making tragedies.

This “grimy, dreamy, poetic ode to L.A.” is propelled by a protagonist “punch-drunk on the crazy stupid love certain cinema-maniacs have for the dream factory, even when all it seems to turn out are nightmares,” writes Barsanti. The result is “a kaleidoscopic barn burner," adds Ashby.

Elaborately drawn, the tragicomic narrative offers a “fascinating look at low-budget filmmaking combined with an epic meta-narrative invoking the waves of immigrants, hustlers, and cinephiles that created the legend and reality of the film industry,” writes Reid.

A Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartooning, Bell brings his skill for social satire to a personal story that makes powerful political commentary. The Talk, a graphic memoir and cultural commentary about the lived reality and legacy of racism in America, is framed around “the talk” that parents of Black children, particularly sons, find they must give about police violence. Bell depicts his own upbringing in the 1980s and ’90s as a biracial child of a white mother and Black father, including traumatic encounters with police and other officials, and macro- and microaggressions suffered throughout his schooling and career. In between, romance and the joys of becoming a cartoonist add light to the serious topics. And, nodding to the thwarted attempts to talk with his own father about race, Bell closes touchingly on a frank talk with his young Black son.

It’s “emotionally sharp in its chronology of self and social-cultural changes in America,” writes McKinney. The narrative acrobatically “packs comedy, tragedy, history, and hard truths into a layered memoir with the unifying, humanizing frame story of teaching his son how to survive as a Black man in America,” Garrity adds.

Bell contributes through comics storytelling to a complex national dialogue and reckoning pushed forward by the scholarship of Black writers. It’s an “exemplar of how comics can cut through with the intimacy and immediacy of visual language to the heart of larger social issues and debates,” writes Lemke.

In another tie, with five votes, A Guest in the House by Emily Carroll (First Second) and Monica by Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics) come in at third place in this year's poll.

DiBello calls the former “visually arresting and spine tingling,” adding: “this mystery/horror tale about a bride tormented by her husband's first wife is a lush, gothic treat.” Of the latter, Barsanti says it's “a cool, undermining meditation on American loneliness (equal parts DeLillo and Drnaso) that gets under your skin before practically scorching it with a truly horrifying oh-no-this-can't-be-happening conclusion.”

2023 Trends

The poll also asks critics to reflect on the year’s industry trends. Graphic novel sales continued to thrive in 2023, though sales rose slowly compared to recent years' rapid increase. “Manga and manga-style comics proliferate on digital webtoon platforms, and in print adaptations, driven by a new generation of fans reading comics on their phones and online,” writes Reid, with new imprints including Inklore, Ize, and Webtoon Unscrolled banking on webtoon fandom following to book sales. Though, as Zhdanova points out, the translation in format has seen “varying success” in readability.

“Direct market comics retailers continue to face dramatic changes in what kind of comics consumers want and where they buy them in a rapidly changing North American comics marketplace,” continues Reid.

“Superhero floppies attempt to cater to an ever-shrinking audience,” agrees DiBello. “The success of multimedia TV properties based on manga with adaptations of One Piece, Pluto, and even non-manga Scott Pilgrim have spurred buyer interest in the graphic novels themselves [compared to] the declining box office of superhero films.”

Publishers aim also for the steady market of academic adoption via a continued influx of “textbook, or text/discourse-heavy work, graphic novel adaptations,” notes McKinney, comparing it to film industry conversion of books to film, where mixed results “expose how careful yet skilled visual craftsmanship and excellent storytelling are key.... It's not just about making words into ‘cartoon’ form.”

The energy of the community’s return to in-person conventions was celebrated, counterpoised against the chilling impact of persistent censorship efforts. “Right-wing book bans continue to exact their terrible toll on students, educators, and librarians alike,” writes Kirby, whose own graphic memoir, the queer love story Marry Me a Little, released this year. He also points to such champions in the small press world as Silver Sprocket and Street Noise, which, “as if in answer to this infuriating movement, continue to publish powerful books from marginalized voices that take a firm stand against oppression.”

“I'm excited this year by the continuing explosion of queer lit across the board,” writes Ashby, who adds that she’s “glad to see the—somewhat related—expansion of the horror genre, including a greater selection of avant-garde titles.”

Indeed, the diversity of authors and genres continues to be a hallmark of the category. Comics output this year included “fantastic debuts but also long-standing artists going outside their comfort zones to play with format and design,” Oksman writes. “More and more graphic novels were slipping the bounds of reality and flying off into a space all their own,” adds Barsanti.

Honorable Mentions

Four Votes

Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey by Edel Rodríguez (Metropolitan)

“A stunning, epic memoir about immigration, freedom, totalitarianism, and what parents do for their children.” – CK

Three Votes

Three Rocks: The Story of Ernie Bushmiller: The Man Who Created Nancy by Bill Griffith (Abrams ComicArts)

“Only a visual biography could do justice to Nancy, Bushmiller's iconic masterpiece of comedy in pared-down design, and this book is a fond and inventive celebration of the man and his work.” – JD

Two Votes

Artificial: A Love Story by Amy Kurzweil (Catapult)

Blackward by Lawrence Lindell (Drawn & Quarterly)

Boys Weekend by Mattie Lubchansky (Pantheon)

The Chromatic Fantasy by H.A. (Silver Sprocket)

Diaries of War: Two Visual Accounts from Ukraine and Russia by Nora Krug (Ten Speed Graphic)

Ephemera: A Memoir by Briana Loewinsohn (Fantagraphics)

Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam by Thien Pham (First Second)

Girl Juice by Benji Nate (Drawn & Quarterly)

I Must Be Dreaming by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)

I Thought You Loved Me by MariNaomi (Fieldmouse)

Listen, Beautiful Márcia by Marcello Quintanilha, trans. from the Portuguese by Andrea Rosenberg (Fantagraphics)

The Man in the McIntosh Suit by Rina Ayuyang (Drawn and Quarterly)

Mimosa by Archie Bongiovanni (Surely)

Queenie: Godmother of Harlem by Aurélie Lévy and Elizabeth Colomba (Abrams ComicArts)

Shubeik Lubeik by Deena Mohamed (Pantheon)

Previous Critics Poll Winners

2022: Ducks

2021: Secret to Superhuman Strength

2020: Kent State

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