Beaton's 'Ducks' Tops PW's 2022 Graphic Novel Critics Poll – Publishers Weekly

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Kate Beaton’s widely acclaimed debut graphic memoir Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands (Drawn & Quarterly) has topped PW’s annual Graphic Novel Critics Poll for best work of the year by a significant margin, receiving nine votes from PW’s panel of 15 critics. This is Beaton's second time winning the poll; she won in 2011 for Hark A Vagrant.
Beaton’s adroitly told personal narrative is a bracing exposé of the sexism and misogyny women face working in the nearly all-male oil fields, as well as a plaintive and incisive critique of the industry’s destructive impact on the environment. Nevertheless, Beaton’s personal story is balanced with humor and rich with canny, wry vignettes of her crusty work colleagues, rendered along with breathtaking depictions of the desolate landscape of the oil fields. One of very few women working in the male-dominated work force, Beaton tracks the two years she spent working various jobs (such as handing out wrenches at a tool crib) in Northern Canada’s remote oil fields, while depicting the lives of her co-workers—all of them separated from family and home lives.
Beaton has an acute ear for dialogue in the rapport among her quirky company, offering the reader a field study of Canadian dialects and wisecracks. But she was also forced to endure relentless sexism and misogynist “jokes,” as well as more intense periods of trauma, and her book also bears witness to ways the men around her are transformed in the camps’ isolation—including rampant abuse of drugs and alcohol. It’s “an indelible record [that] combines a lyric personal history with deep social despair,” writes PW senior news editor Calvin Reid. The graphic memoir remains “vivid even when exploring bleak isolation and loneliness,” PW critic DW McKinney adds.
Along with Beaton’s observations on class issues and sexism, she also considers how the camps’ massive earth-moving machinery disrupts the lives of local people, indigenous cultures, and endangers wildlife. The book is ultimately a powerful indictment of the costs of the fuel economy, an immersive study that “we’ll be reading and talking about for a long time,” writes PW critic Chris J. Burkhalter, describing the book as an “unflinching appraisal of gender, history, land use and capitalism [where] Beaton’s amused (and sometimes astonished) voice pulls the reader through.”
Ducks was also named a Top Ten PW Best Book of 2022 (across categories and genres); and Beaton was the subject of a PW author profile by Heidi MacDonald, who described her as “in the forefront of a generation of cartoonists who would disprove sexist notions” held by the once also male-dominated comics industry. PW critic John DiBello called the book a “masterpiece,” and says “Beaton portrays the people and situations she encounters with uncanny empathy and beauty. Lightyears beyond her (wonderful) gag cartoons, it's a work that calls for shouting from the rooftops in jubilation over what the comics medium can impart.”
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 is the winner; 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 Chris Barsanti, Chris J. Burkhalter, Rob Clough, John DiBello, Andrew Farago, Shaenon Garrity, Jennifer de Guzman, Rob Kirby, DW McKinney, Dai Newman, Samantha Riedel, Haley Spaeth, and Masha Zhdanova. Also participating are PW Graphic Novel reviews editor Meg Lemke and PW senior news editor Calvin Reid.
SECOND PLACE: A TIE FOR RUNNER-UP
Indie publishers secured top positions overall in this year’s poll, with second place a tie between two titles that received four votes each: Keeping Two by Jordan Crane (Fantagraphics) and the graphic memoir The Third Person by Emma Grove (Drawn & Quarterly).
In Keeping Two Ignatz indie comics award-winner Crane, known for a sharp yet surreal design style displayed in his music scene posters as well as his comics and picture books, explores a couple’s domestic tensions. It’s a “delicately observed, masterfully composed graphic novel that allows small human moments to build to an overwhelming climax,” writes Garrity. Crane achieves an acrobatic narrative with plot and art style in a book that’s both “harrowing and heartrending,” says Barsanti. Reid praises Crane’s “dazzling formal invention and ghoulish wit that renders the deep connective roots of the love through a rich succession of imagined scenarios full of terrible loss, dysfunction, and conflict; all in the service of capturing a glimpse of the prosaic power of mutual devotion.”

Grove’s 920-page debut graphic memoir, The Third Person, is a “surprise of impressive size, [a] huge book coming out of seemingly nowhere,” says Lemke. “She’s an animator, and her expedient gestural drawings carry narrative urgency—she depicts therapy with racing high stakes,” Lemke says.
Grove’s story is told through intense exchanges with an increasingly hostile therapist, as Grove cycles through different personalities while presenting the narrative via different genders. Moments of quiet revelation about identity intermix with jumps in memories that loop back and fill in gaps, so the reader works to solve the mystery alongside Grove. The Third Person helped Grove understand her mental health experiences, heal a fractured identity, and come to a sense of self as a trans woman.
THIRD PLACE: THREE VOTES
A Career in Books: A Novel About Friends, Money, and the Occasional Duck Bun by Kate Gavino (Plume)
“Gavino's charming and incisive portrayal of publishing life follows the new careers of three young women struggling upwards in an environment of inherent sexism and racism, taking inspiration from each other and a befriended author neighbor. Without wallpapering over the flaws of the publishing business, this is a fine celebration of just who puts those books into your bookstore.” — JD
The Peanutbutter Sisters and Other American Stories by Rumi Hara (Drawn & Quarterly)
“Realism, science fiction, and fantasy exist side-by-side in this sprightly collection in stories that seem like a perfect expression of life in the strange world of 2020 and 2021.” —JG
Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank by Eric Orner (Metropolitan)
“A graphic biography as multilayered as its subject, superbly written and drawn by a too-often underrated comics master.” – RK
Wash Day Diaries by Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith (Chronicle)
“Rowser and Smith's focus on Black joy, friendship, and the rituals that are a part of both coalesce into a story where each of the women finds a way to support each other. Smith's lush art vividly illustrates how hair and fashion are crucial aspects of their everyday lives.” —RC

What Is Home, Mum? by Sabba Khan (Street Noise)
“A deeply introspective memoir about family, history, and generational tension, heightened by beautiful prose and the illustrations’ flowing linework” – JG
Who Will Make the Pancakes by Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics)
“This graphic novel that crosses over into women's literature provides one of the strongest through narratives of women's lives over the past 75 years in stories both extremely personal and broadly social: a celebration of and lament for the lives, loves, opportunities and choices of five women in a quiet, but transcendent series of stories.” – JD
TWO VOTES
Acting Class by Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)
“Drnaso's David Lynchian flatness is used to shattering effect in this simmering mystery of buried trauma and dark secrets.” – CJB
Artist by Yeong-shin Ma, trans. from the Korean by Janet Hong (Drawn & Quarterly)
“A pointed but playful take on the life of an artist that is at times absurd and other times so real it cuts to the bone.” – DM
Genevieve Castrée: Complete Works 1981 – 2016 by Genevieve Castrée, edited and trans. from the French by Phil Elverum with Aleshia Jensen (Drawn and Quarterly)
“A spectacular retrospective of an indie artist who passed away too soon, leaving behind a legacy of graphic novels, experimental comics, picture books, and genre-defying art.” – SG
The High Desert: Black. Punk. Nowhere. by James Spooner (Harper)
“Black filmmaker Spooner pivots to comics, revisiting his 2003 Afro-Punk documentary via a graphic memoir focused on his teen years growing up in a community of white teenage neo-nazis and on the impact of Punk music on his life.” – CR
Invisible Wounds by Jess Ruliffson (Fantagraphics)
“A humbling oral history that exposes the gaps in support and unaddressed needs among military veterans.” – DM
Joseph Smith and the Mormons by Noah Van Sciver (Abrams ComicArts)
“A beautiful, provocative graphic biography that uniquely handles the question of religious visions.” – DN
The Keeper: Soccer, Me, and the Law That Changed Women’s Lives by Kelcey Ervick (Avery)
“Ervick deftly uses her experiences in youth soccer as a launching point to explore history, philosophy, women's rights, power, and freedom.” – SG
Men I Trust by Tommi Parrish
“This is a deeply empathic character study of two troubled women attempting to be friends. Parrish is a major talent.” – RK
Notes From a Sickbed by Tessa Brunton (Graphic Universe)
“Bruton's grim humor in discussing being bedridden with an unknown illness mixes a deep sense of anger and resentment with a sense of almost gleeful detachment.” – RC
Shuna's Journey by Hayao Miyazaki trans. from the Japanese by Alex Dudok de Wit (First Second)
“This is a gorgeous presentation of a 1983 fantasy comic—almost a picture book, really—based on a Tibetan folk tale. Available in English for the first time, it’s a near-perfect companion to Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind—the succinct fable to Nausicaä’s sprawling saga. Miyazaki’s watercolors are stunning, and his designs (though perhaps familiar to Studio Ghibli fans) are typically imaginative.” – CJB
Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki trans. from the Japanese by Ryan Holmberg (Drawn and Quarterly)
“An absorbing collection of work by one of the unjustly lesser-known stars of alternative manga, exploring the daily life and growing self-possession of a housewife in the 1980s.” – SG
Time Zone J by Julie Doucet (Drawn & Quarterly)
“Doucet has transformed from being one of the pioneers of confessional, personal memoir into an artist who explores difficult topics with dense and sophisticated imagery.” – RC
2022 TRENDS
The graphic novel critics poll is also an opportunity for critics to reflect on trends in the industry, which like all of publishing continues to be rocked by longer-term, slow roll-out effects of the Covid pandemic. “This was a year where it feels like there's a real changing of the guard in alternative comics, as publishers like AdHouse, PEOW, and Koyama have wound down and smaller publishers are starting to step into their place,” noted Clough. “It's heartening to see new small presses such as Birdcage Bottom, Silver Sprocket and Street Noise increasing their visibility and output, as stalwarts pass into history,” added Kirby.
At major trade publishers, growth and investment has focused on comics for younger readers, with the output for middle grade readers exponentially increasing. As Clough points out, “there is still a large disconnect between the success of YA and middle-grade comics and cultivating an adult audience at a wider level.”
Manga also continues to surge; Spaeth, a librarian as well as a PW critic, says “nothing has been driving circulation quite as well as manga when it comes to adult graphic novels.” Webtoon comics adapted into print books are also on the rise (though Zhdanova points out new imprints are still learning how to best format these adaptations: “vertical-scroll comics weren't designed for print initially and without effort the print edition have [surplus] white space,” she says.)
In terms of themes, imprints like Graphic Mundi have led growth in graphic medicine, which as McKinney noted “heightened focus on invisible disabilities and illnesses that have traditionally not received much attention” this past year. And perhaps in response to Covid fatigue, Farago pointed out how a rise in more “gentle, life-affirming stories…uplifting tales set in the real world, science fiction that celebrates cooperation and unity, and an overall feeling of positivity and optimism.”
Critics also celebrated the continued growth of diversity in comics creators and characters, particularly LGBTQ+ creators.
Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 16 critics participated in the poll. The 2022 PW Graphic Novel Critics Poll actually had 15 critics.
HONORABLE MENTION
Acid Nun by Corinne Halbert (Silver Sprocket)
Across a Field of Starlight by Blue Delliquanti (Random House Graphic)
After Lambana: Myth and Magic in Manila by Eliza Victoria and Mervin Malonzo (Tuttle)
Alfred Hitchcock: Master of Suspense by Noël Simsolo and Dominique Hé, trans. from the French by Montana Kane (NBM)
Alice Guy: First Lady of Film by Catel and Bocquet, trans. from the French by Edward Gauvin
(SelfMadeHero)
All Your Racial Problems Will Soon End: The Cartoons of Charles Johnson by Charles Johnson (New York Review Comics)
Birds of Maine by Michael DeForge (Drawn & Quarterly)
Black and White: Tough Love at the Office (#1) by Sal Jiang (Seven Seas)
Catch These Hands! (#1) by Murata (Yen)
Clementine by Tillie Walden (Image)
The Con Artists by Luke Healy (Drawn & Quarterly)
DC Pride 2022 by Various Writers/Artists (DC)
Down to the Bone: A Leukemia Story by Catherine Pioli (Graphic Mundi)
Drip Drip by Paru Itagaki (Viz)
Everything Is Ok by Debbie Tung (Andrews McMeel)
Fantastic Four: Full Circle by Alex Ross (Abrams ComicArts)
Flung Out of Space: Inspired by the Indecent Adventures of Patricia Highsmith by Grace Ellis and Hannah Templer (Abrams ComicArts)
G.I.L.T. by Alisa Kwitney and Mauricet (Ahoy!)
Galaxy: The Prettiest Star by Jadzia Axelrod and Jess Taylor (DC)
Halina Filipina by Arnold Arre (Tuttle)
How To Make a Monster by Casanova Frankenstein (Fantagraphics)
The Human Target (#1) by Tom King and Greg Smallwood (DC)
Hummingbird Heart by Travis Dandro (Drawn & Quarterly)
I'm Still Alive by Roberto Saviano and Asaf Hanuka (Boom!)
The Joy of Quitting by Keiler Roberts (Drawn & Quarterly)
The Last Mechanical Monster by Brian Fies (Abrams ComicArts)
The Liminal Zone by Junji Ito, trans. from the Japanese by Jocelyne Allen (Viz)
Look Again by Elizabeth Trembley (Street Noise)
Look Back by Tatsuki Fujimoto (Viz)
Love and Rockets: The First Fifty by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
Monotone Blue by Nagabe (Seven Seas)
Movements and Moments edited by Sonja Eismann, Ingo Schöningh, and Maya (Drawn & Quarterly)
Mr. Colostomy by Matthew Thurber (Drawn & Quarterly)
My Perfect Life by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly)
My Wandering Warrior Existence by Nagata Kabi, trans. from the Japanese by Jocelyne Allen (Seven Seas)
Nowhere Girl by Magali Le Huche, trans. from the French by Jesse Aufiery (Nobrow)
Number One is Walking: My Life in the Movies and Other Diversions by Steve Martin and Harry Bliss (Celadon)
One Beautiful Spring Day by Jim Woodring
Our Little Secret by Emily Carrington (Drawn & Quarterly)
The Paradox of Getting Better by Raven Lyn Clemons (Silver Sprocket)
The Philosopher, the Dog and the Wedding: The Story of the Infamous Female Philosopher Hipparchia by Barbara Stok, trans. from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison (SelfMadeHero)
Radical: My Year with a Socialist Senator by Sofia Warren
Rave by Jessica Campbell (Drawn & Quarterly)
Real Hero Shit by Kendra Wells (Iron Circus)
Salamandre by I.N.J. Culbard (Dark Horse)
Schappi by Anna Haifisch (Fantagraphics)
The Six Sidekicks of Trigger Keaton by Kyle Starks and Chris Schweizer (Image)
Slash Them All by Antoine Maillard, trans. from the French by Jenna Allen (Fantagraphics)
So Much for Love: How I Survived a Toxic Relationship by Sophie Lambda trans. from the French by Montana Kane (First Second)
Something is Killing the Children (#4) by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell'Edera (Boom!)
Space Story by Fiona Ostby (West Margin)
Squire by Nadia Shammas and Sara Alfageeh (HarperCollins)
Thieves by Lucie Bryon (Nobrow)
Ultrasound by Conor Stechschulte (Fantagraphics)
Upside Dawn by Jason (Fantagraphics)
Why the People: The Case for Democracy by Beka Feathers and Ally Shwed (First Second)
Yellow Cab by Benoît Cohen and Christophe Chabouté, trans. from the French by Edward Gauvin (IDW)
PREVIOUS CRITICS POLL WINNERS
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
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