Cue the sad trombone: Despite high hopes, 2021 was not a significant improvement over 2020. Though visual artist Elise Engler’s Diary of a Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, Jan. 18, 2022) is a distinctly 2020 narrative, it features plenty of material and themes that carried over through 2021 and will no doubt stay germane in 2022. In a starred review, our critic called it “a dynamic artistic rendering of chaos survived—at least so far.”
I have always been a big fan of contemporary graphic nonfiction—Maus, Fun Home, Seek You, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, etc.—primarily because of its ability to distill complex information and contextual details into digestible, succinct, often visually stunning creations that both move and educate. That is certainly the case with Engler’s book; as our reviewer noted, “2020 would confound everyone’s expectations, and revisiting it through Engler’s vivid drawings and sharp memories is enough to give anyone whiplash.”
The author opens the introduction by setting the stage for the tumultuous, dynamic narrative to follow: “A global pandemic with millions dead, half a million Americans among them; a national uprising ignited by police killings of Black Americans; cities shut down, poverty soaring, a president inciting a riot to stop his election defeat, hellish wildfires, mass shootings. It was the worst year of our lives, people said, apocalyptic, unprecedented, biblical in the scale of its disasters. Throughout 2020…I painted the day’s headlines, making a picture of the first few news items I heard emitting from my wooden bedside radio when I woke up each morning. Viewed together here, these daily paintings, which include ordinary events along with the historic ones, ended up forming an unusual visual record of an epic, momentous year.”
Each page captures yet another moment of chaos and disruption, snapshots that move readers along at a dizzying pace. In one day, Aug. 4, 2020, Engler encapsulates all of the following: “Vanity Fair article says Kushner’s secret testing plan ‘went poof into thin air,’ because at [the] time [the] virus was affecting blue states; Trump goes after Dr. Birx on COVID-19 testing being widespread; Filing suggests Trump and Co. investigated for bank and insurance fraud; Census cuts all counting efforts short by a month; Tropical Storm Isaias floods mid-Atlantic coast, speeding towards Northeast; Judge says thousands of NYC primary ballots missing postmarks must be counted; NYC teachers protest back to school.”
While some readers may need an extended break from the cascading cycle of depressing news, Engler is up to the challenge of showing us just how significant the year was. Over the course of nearly 300 pages, wrote our critic, “Engler combines the sharp eye of an editorial caricaturist with the vibrant color of a portraitist, and the energy of the artwork underscores the sense of urgency in the day's news. The accompanying text has a matter-of-fact tone that belies the powerful underlying sense that so much has gone seriously awry. A dynamic artistic rendering of chaos survived—at least so far.”
Slot this one next to Eli Saslow’s Voices From the Pandemic and, for readers hungry for more graphic treatments of the pandemic era, Covid Chronicles: A Comics Anthology (Graphic Mundi, Feb. 15), edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson, which our starred review called “a diverse, impassioned book” in which “quick responders illustrate the impact of the pandemic with work of lasting value.”
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.