As we move into a possible third wave of COVID-19, the early days of the pandemic in spring 2020 are starting to feel like a distant past, when everything was in flux and there was neither an old nor a new normal. Wondering whether to wear masks, leaving groceries in the garage for three days and searching high and low for toilet paper all seem like experiences of another era.

As we move into a possible third wave of COVID-19, the early days of the pandemic in spring 2020 are starting to feel like a distant past, when everything was in flux and there was neither an old nor a new normal. Wondering whether to wear masks, leaving groceries in the garage for three days and searching high and low for toilet paper all seem like experiences of another era.

These early days of pandemic uncertainty, anxiety and disruption are captured in all their rich diversity and strangeness in COVID Chronicles, an exquisite anthology of 64 original short comics from around the world that document the emergence of the virus and its effects, alongside the rise of Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements.

Most of the comics are six pages or less, and there are stories and styles for all tastes, from black-and-white indie comics to watercolour memoirs to brightly coloured superheroes smashing the virus. The artists and writers range from well-known indie creators to mainstream comics artists to first-time cartoonists, and the diversity of hand-drawn and digital styles make this an excellent compendium of 21st-century cartooning in itself.

Some of the comics situate COVID-19 in a longer history of pandemics, others depict the experiences of patients and doctors, and many focus on individual stories of adults and kids adjusting to lives narrowed to the home and transformed through the internet. Economic precarity and inequality is an important theme alongside the medical narratives, and the initial focus on the virus itself expands to comics about evictions, layoffs, political corruption and racism as crucial experiences of the pandemic.

People’s doubts about their abilities to stay afloat, home school, keep working and be physically and mentally healthy run alongside these issues as many of the contributors combine the public and the private in their short stories. The possibility of a vaccine is not yet on the horizon, but hope and optimism ring through this collection as the cartoonists remind us of the small ways we came together in those early days, from pot banging to balcony singing to signs in windows and chalk messages on sidewalks.

Reading these comics, either in order or dipping in and out, offers a way to process the past year and recognize that we have moved on — not just to second and third waves of COVID-19, but individually and collectively as societies living through multiple medical, social and political stages of the pandemic. Like many other comics and graphic narratives grouped under the loose category of "graphic medicine," the contributors to COVID Chronicles witness both the individual embodied experiences and intertwined social effects of illness, health care, public policy and community organization. Refreshingly, not all of the stories are from North America, and the volume includes cartoonists from Australia, France, Germany, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

COVID Chronicles appears under the Graphic Mundi imprint of Penn State University Press, where a collective of academics, artists and medical professionals have been publishing graphic narratives that represent illness, disability, caregiving and medicine since the launch of The Graphic Medicine Manifesto in 2015. This anthology is edited by Kendra Boileau and Rich Johnson, both prominent names in comics publishing, and great care has been given to producing a high quality, expertly curated and beautiful book that registers a remarkable array of comics responses to the diverse global experiences of the first few months of the pandemic.

Making sense of the past year is no easy task; it requires an anthropologist’s eye and a psychologist’s ear, an artist’s observation and a writer’s empathy. The complex form of comics is ideally suited to this task, and COVID Chronicles is impressive as both an archive of the new normal of COVID-19 and a provocation to never return to the old normal.

Candida Rifkind is a Professor in the Department of English at the University of Winnipeg, where she teaches and researches comics, graphic narratives and Canadian literature and culture.