For the purposes of this review, "graphic novel" (or GN) refers to a trade paperback containing comics material that is a single story or concept, and not just an anthology of strips.
Among the most important nonfiction work in the genre published this year was "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud (216 pages, Tundra/Kitchen Sink, $19.95). In fact, it's the most important book ever produced on the subject. Period. McCloud has set the terms for discussion of comics into the next century. And superheroes are not a necessary part of the discussion.
One of the artists McCloud mentions as moving comics away from superheroes is Chester Brown. "The Playboy" (170 pages, Drawn & Quarterly, $12.95), collected from Brown's comic "Yummy Fur," is as far from Superman as one could imagine. It is a painfully honest reminiscence of the author's relationship with the famous men's magazine, starting with the first issue he bought when he was 15 and continuing through an epilogue that takes place after the first chapter was published in the comic book. Funny and poignant, this is a thought-provoking essay on sex and guilt.
Closer to traditional comics are the works of Neil Gaiman, who does work for DC (home of Superman and Batman) as well as independent products. I didn't like his "A Game of You" (192 pages, DC Comics, $19.95, paper; $29.95 hard cover) as much as some of the other "Sandman" collections, but that's almost like saying I don't like "Romeo and Juliet" as much as "The Tempest." Gaiman's run on "The Sandman" is undoubtedly the finest writing the mainstream comic book industry has ever seen. …