Cue the sad trombone: Despite high expectations, 2021 was not a significant improvement over 2020. Although visual artist Elise Engler Diary of a Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, January 18, 2022) is a clear 2020 story, it contains a lot of material and themes that have continued through 2021 and will undoubtedly remain relevant in 2022. In a starred review, our critic called it “a dynamic artistic rendering of chaos – at least until now.”

I’ve always been a big fan of contemporary graphic non-fiction…Mausnice houselooking for youCan’t we talk about something nicer?, etc. – mainly for its ability to distil complex information and contextual details into digestible, concise, often visually stunning creations that both move and educate. That is certainly the case with Engler’s book; as our reviewer noted, “2020 would throw everyone’s expectations off the table, and revisiting it through Engler’s vivid drawings and sharp memories is enough to give anyone whiplash whiplash.”

The author opens the introduction by setting the stage for the tumultuous, dynamic story that will follow: “A global pandemic killing millions, including half a million Americans; a national uprising ignited by police killings of black Americans; cities closed, poverty rising, a president inciting a riot to stop his election defeat, infernal wildfires, mass shootings. It was the worst year of our lives, people said, apocalyptic, unprecedented, biblical in the magnitude of the disasters. Throughout 2020…I painted the headlines of the day and captured a picture of the first few news stories I heard each morning from my wooden bedside radio when I woke up. Viewed here together, these everyday paintings, depicting both common and historical events, made an unusual visual record of an epic, memorable year.”

Each page captures a different moment of chaos and disruption, snapshots that move readers along at a dizzying pace. On one day, August 4, 2020, Engler summed up all of the following:Vanity Fair article says Kushner’s secret test plan ‘went in the air’ because at [the] time [the] virus affected blue states; Trump goes after Dr. Birx notes that COVID-19 testing is widespread; Filing suggests that Trump and Co. have launched an investigation into bank and insurance fraud; Census shortens all counters by one month; Tropical Storm Isaias inundates the mid-Atlantic coast and rages northeast; Judge Says Thousands of NYC Primary Ballots Missing Postmarks Should Be Counted; NYC teachers protest back to school.”

While some readers may need a longer break from the cascading cycle of depressing news, Engler is up to the challenge of showing us how important the year was. Over the course of nearly 300 pages, our critic wrote, “Engler combines the keen eye of an editorial caricaturist with the vivid colors of a portraitist, and the energy of the artwork underscores the sense of urgency in the news of the day. The accompanying text has a sober tone that belies the powerful underlying meaning that so much has gone wrong. A dynamic artistic rendering of chaos has survived – at least until now.”

Place this 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, passionate book” in which “fast responders illustrate the impact of the pandemic with work of lasting value.”

Eric Liebetrau is the non-fiction and editor-in-chief