“Opal Fruit” Is More Than A Little Delicious

Another one I’m a little bit “late to the party” in terms of getting around to reviewing is cartoonist Kat Rose’s self-published 2016 mini Opal Fruit, a challenging, bemusing, sometimes bewildering 10-page assemblage of figure (for the most part) drawings that cleverly uses its own simplicity to obfuscate what appears, after multiple “read”-throughs, to actually be a tightly-structured “suite” designed to elicit a particular set of reactions and interpretations not unlike, say, Nick Thorburn’s much longer — though equally wordless — Penguins. There’s one key difference, though : whereas Thorburn’s constructs hew much closer to a linear start-to-finish “strip” configuration, this is a legit “free-for-all” that follows a rhythm, to be sure, but nothing so conventional as an actual structure.

That makes it perplexing at times, I’ll grant you, but it also means it’s never less than thoroughly intriguing and engrossing — provided you’re the sort who doesn’t mind embarking on a journey without any sort of map.

Certainly each of Rose’s drawings follows on, even builds upon, what preceded it, but at key points there are jarring breaks that that bear only oblique, or at the most thematic, connections to what came before, yet by the time all is said and done a central raison d’etre can be discerned, a through-line that sometimes runs in patterns, sometimes in circles, but always takes you someplace unexpected no matter which way you look at it. If you’re feeling ambitious, conservative, or both (and it’s not often those two words go together), a kind of “A to Z” sub-narrative is there to be plucked from the overflowing visual garden, but poring over the makeshift “sequence” of equally-makeshift “events” rather defeats the purpose of what it seems to me Rose is going for here — this is one to be flipped through quickly and in succession, the “tone poem” nature of the proceedings lending itself best to immediate and visceral impact, with the relationship the characters bear to, and sometimes on, one another coming into focus the more one is exposed to them. Rose doesn’t slow down the “action” here for anything — my best advice is that you follow that example.

This, then, is a highly experimental work — to put it mildly! — but it’s not one that completely eschews fairly firm understanding. It’ll take you though any number of twists, turns, bends, and forks in the road, but if you trust in your own abilities to the extent the artist clearly believes you’re capable of, you’ll not only find something remotely akin to a pleasant “outcome,” you’ll find that you aren’t even ready for it to “end” — hence the whole “go through it quickly, and many times over” piece of advice. At no time will readers be able to predict what the next page holds, but that’s no major concern when you’re still at least partially pre-occupied with what happened on the last one. The aesthetically denuded may call that “confusing,” but around these parts, we’re more partial to the term “exciting” — not least because, in this case, it’s exponentially more accurate.

That being said, yeah — your mileage may vary with this comic, and there’s no shame in that. For some, its impenetrable-at-first-glance lack of anything resembling a hard-and-fast “format” will simply be off-putting in the extreme. But if you’re happy to at least temporarily shelve most notions of what comics are or even should be? You’re in for a heck of a time.

And I should be clear — I mean a heck of a good time. This is a unique, perhaps even stream-of-consciousness, work of art, and while it counts on a reader’s willingness to go with its flow, and isn’t afraid to wash over you, never once does it subsume you, or make you feel as though you’re drowning. If anything, it’s a healthy breath of fresh, clean, and invigorating air.

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Opal Fruit is available for $5.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/opalfruit.html

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so please take a minute to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

We Left Avant-Garde In The Dust A Long Time Ago : Diana Chu’s “Rodin Du Jour”

Does great art need to have point? Or, more precisely, does it need to have a point beyond an artist exploring an idea by visual means — for its own sake, theirs, or both?

Diana Chu’s 2017 short (as in eight pages) self-published mini, Rodin Du Jour, certainly has me asking those questions — and it’s had me asking them for some time, truth be told, hence this review coming along so “late in the game,” as the expression goes. I offer no excuse beyond “it took me some time to figure out how to approach this work,” but hey — does it even qualify as an “excuse” when you’re telling the truth?

Saying Chu’s ‘zine has a “premise” might be putting things in overly-concrete terms, but as a visual experiment it definitely has a specific set of self-imposed rules in place : she uses each two-page spread to juxtapose rather exquisite graphite renderings of iconic Rodim sculptures with/against reasonably contemporary pop culture characters, personages, and references.  And so “The Thinker” is paired with The Weeknd, “Balzac” with “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski, “Three Shades” with Beyonce’s “Single Ladies,” etc. Chu’s choices seem highly intuitive — as is, indeed, the core concept itself here — but I can’t ague that it’s not an extremely effective series of illustrations.

The question, though, is — effective at what? And it wasn’t until I could comfortably answer that question, at least for myself if no one else, that I felt at all qualified to opine on this work. Fair warning : the answer I came up with is pretty anticlimactic — bit no less accurate for that fact.

Simply put, I think Chu was just looking to have fun with this one. And three’s nothing “just” about that, actually. Fun is important — in fact, it’s kinda what we all live for. Say what you will for love being the end-all and be-all goal of life, but we wouldn’t want love, or sex, or relationships, in our lives if they were no goddamn fun. Which isn’t the same as saying they always are mind you, but we certainly go into each/all of them hoping for a good time, and the extent to which Chu is clearly and obviously enjoying herself here is quit evident in the care, heart, and humor she approaches these drawings with. It’s highly expressive stuff, to be sure, but more than that it’s smartly expressive, each conscripted partner in each pairing reflecting qualities of the other that are, by turns, somber/fun, contemplative/freewheeling, deadpan/outrageous, all amplified by simple and clever puns of both the visual and linguistic varieties . Chu’s exploration of weird territory yields weird results — but at no point is anyone or anything represented as being something more, or less, than what they unquestionably are. It just so happens that “what they are” is enough to jog your mind and make you scratch your head simultaneously when presented within this unique contextual framework.

Points for originality, then, in both form and function, but if your aesthetic sensibilities are such that they preclude you from enjoying anything even remotely self-indulgent then you may, in fairness, be better off taking a pass on this one. The rest of us — who aren’t a bunch of fucking squares — will appreciate this knowing full well that Chu just made it because she could and wanted to. It’s the most basic impulse/inspiration behind the creation of art that there is — and, therefore, also the most honest.

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Rodin Du Jour is available for $5.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/rodin.html

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so please take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

 

Make Time For “Making Time”

I’ve really been digging Elise Dietrich’s self-published minis lately, and it’s not hard to see why : meticulous in her attention to detail and determined to pack as many visual “goodies” into every panel as possible, her cartooning nevertheless seems to easily dodge the pitfalls of rigid formality and instead expresses itself as a kind of fluid, nearly spontaneous, quiet series of expertly-communicated mediations on the little things that make life — well, life, I guess. Which probably seems like a counter-intuitive thing for me to say given that in last year’s small diary comics collection, Making Time, she adheres fairly strictly to four-panel grids, hits a requisite narrative “beat” in the middle of each strip, and generally ends ’em all on something that could at least be loosely interpreted as a “punch line.” But there you go — comics, especially good comics, can be kinda weird like that.

And let there be no doubt that this is a very good comic indeed : unassuming, gently contemplative, and perfectly capturing the flavor and nuance of winter in Vermont, these strips — drawn between November and February of last year and originally posted on the artist’s Instagram page — feature plenty of struggles with the elements, sure, but Dietrich also “makes time” for parenting, exercise, drawing (duh), and winter-centric activities like knitting. Hell, a brief examination of Brazilian politics even makes its way into these pages, so it’s probably fair to say that you only think you know what to expect from this admittedly, and quite deliberately, modest little number.

Don’t let that modesty lull you into thinking there’s not a fair amount of “eye candy” to be had here, though — Dietrich is big on detail and seems to genuinely enjoy stuffing her panels to the gills with crisp linework, lots of cross-hatching, and a hell of a lot of visual information for your money. No one elements rises to the fore at the expense of others, though, and the end result is skillful illustration that more often than not feels like a delicate balancing act has been achieved, whether by design or happy accident, between any number of metaphorical “ingredients,” all coming together to make one of those comforting winter drinks, albeit one with maybe a little kick of something snuck into it from under the bar.

Calling this a “heartwarming” collection isn’t entirely false, then, but it’s not in any way syrupy, sugar-coated, or — Christ almighty, can you tell I’m on a diet and have food on my mind? It’s torture, I’m telling you, complete and utter torture — but fortunately, Dietrich’s comic is anything but, and while I confess to being something of a “newbie” to her work, her line appears to be getting more confident and individualistic with each release, and ditto for her sense of timing, so I guess what I’m getting at is : I hope she’s doing more diary strips this winter, too.

I get the distinct feeling — though I could be wrong — that Dietrich was a writer before she was an illustrator, because when one follows the trajectory of her career-to-date, one sees a nearly “fully-formed” author from the outset, but one that needed to “warm up to” the unique demands of marrying words with pictures in a completely unified fashion. Now that she’s done that, though, the sky well and truly appears to be the limit.

Okay, fair enough, it’s kind of a chilly, gray, overcast winter sky — but that doesn’t mean there’s not a hell of a lot of interesting stuff happening beneath it, a fairly generous sampling of which is related in this absolutely charming, naturalistic, at times even compelling little gem of a comic.

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Making Time is available for $6.00 from Elise Dietrich’s Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/EliseDietrichDesign/listing/752818725/minicomic-making-time-volume-1?share_time=1573930651968&utm_campaign=Share&utm_medium=ListingManager&utm_source=Copy&utm_term=so.lmsm

Also, this review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very pleased indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

“Keeping Score” Of Jesse Reklaw’s Life

Having delivered intimate and unsettling portraits of his traumatic upbringing and struggles with mental illness in previous books such as Couch Tag and LOVF, it seems only natural that cartoonist Jesse Reklaw would take art as therapy a step further by doing daily diary comics — but as his late-2019 collection of them published by Fantagraphics Underground demonstrates, he’s chosen to go about the task in rather meticulous fashion, and hast taken its title, Keeping Score, absolutely literally.

Which, I mean, more power to him — diary comics are almost always therapeutic for their creators in one way or another, so why not come up with, say, a visual shorthand chart recording things such one’s medications, moods, and alcohol intake, as Reklaw has done here? If you’re gonna go in, you might as well go all in, otherwise why even bother? There’s no doubt about this particular cartoonist’s commitment to his task, then, but does that necessarily mean that you’re going to want to read about his bike rides, creative process, social interactions, and adventures in pet ownership?

As it turns out, the answer to that vital question is ” absolutely,” which means that Reklaw has managed to make the personal interesting, and that’s certainly more than you can say for some. His facility for portraying the potentially mundane in a manner that’s definitely less so is certainly admirable, then, although in fairness it’s probably worth pointing out that you’re going to care a hell of a lot more about the contents of this book if you’re already familiar with its author’s prior ones. As a “stand-alone” work, my best guess is that this would come across as a curious piece — an engaging enough one to make it worth one’s time and money, sure, but perhaps not one you’d find yourself re-visiting too terribly often. If you’re a veteran Reklaw reader, though, then it’s borderline-vital stuff, bravely offering crucial insights into a talented cartoonist’s largely-quiet triumphs and tragedies, as well as one that shines a light on the methodology behind his art and the experiences that inform it.

In that respect, then, a project such as this is essentially pitch-perfect for Gary Groth’s “micropress” imprint, as it’s strong and doubtlessly worthy work that will, almost by definition, be of interest to a small-but-loyal readership. I dig the fact that a label such as “FU” exists to bring material of this nature to to the public — even if it’s only a tiny fraction of that public — but putting these strips in readers’ hands is a secondary concern at best, as they accomplish their true purpose by dint of their creation alone. So, “mission accomplished,” absolutely — with an added bonus for Reklaw in that other people now get to check this stuff out, too.

As far as the cartooning on offer goes, it’s uniformly strong — not as polished and/or “ready for prime time” as, say, Couch Tag, but unquestionably well-rendered and inherently communicative. He doesn’t half-ass anything here even though he easily and understandably could have chosen to do so, and I would humbly submit that, once again, this is solid evidence of Reklaw’s commitment to using his art to not just document his life but, more importantly, improve it. That’s noteworthy and, not to be overly-reductive, pretty damn cool. And it makes for an engaging bit of — well, let’s just call it informed voyeurism and hope that doesn’t come across as being too inherently creepy.

In summation, then : this may not be the ideal place to start reading Jesse Reklaw’s work, but if you’re already “on board,” you should find it fascinating, informative, and hey — maybe even occasionally moving.

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so if you’d be so kind as to take a moment to check it out and consider joining, I’d be very grateful indeed.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

“Constantly” In Awe Of GG

As near as I can tell, the events depicted in GG’s new book, Constantly (her last for Koyama Press and officially the first great comic bearing a 2020 copyright date) all take place within the confines of the apartment or house occupied by its nameless protagonist, but in a less literal — but more accurate — sense, they take place within her mind, her heart and, if you subscribe to the concept, her soul. And they’re happening to a lot or people a lot of the time.

If you’ve ever been friends with, or loved, someone who suffers from depression — or if you suffer from it yourself — the contents of this slim-but-undoubtedly powerful volume are sure to hit home, but odds are that even if your life has been unscathed by the effects of it in any perspective, you’ll at least gain some valuable insights into its actualities thanks to the remarkable visual efficacy of GG’s depiction of it as a “B side” of one’s own existence, something that doesn’t necessarily occur to someone so much as it does with and alongside someone, a “constant companion” that shadows the person afflicted with it in all ways and at all times, a secondary way of experiencing everything that pre-supposes the worst about every experience and even potential experience, to the point where the purportedly “basic” act of, ya know, doing things seems inherently pointless, often explicitly counter-productive. You may have heard “depression’s a bitch,” but if you haven’t lived it yourself, well — I daresay this particular reading experience is as close as you wanna come to it.

To get this across — and to do so with an absolute minimum of words — is no easy task, but it’s one to which GG’s skill-set is perhaps uniquely suited, her masterful blend of high-contrast muted pastel colors, inventive use of space, physical minimalism, and translucent borderline-geometric shapes coalescing in a fashion that’s inherently subtle, but nevertheless packs a sledgehammer blow. This isn’t forceful visual storytelling by any means, but it’s no less powerful for that fact — hell, it’s no exaggeration to say that its “quiet spaces” are where its real power lies. Which means, yeah, this is sophisticated material, but it’s in no way alienating. I’d even go so far as to say that someone who is, for lack of a better readily-available term, “comics illiterate” will have no problem following along here on both an intellectual and, crucially, emotional level.

In a very real sense, then, even though we never get to know this person’s name, we get to know them, and to understand what they’re going through. In less skilled hands, I would suppose, marrying themes this universal to a story this undoubtedly personal would lead to a kind of internal tension, maybe even a conflict between the two, but you needn’t concern yourself with such “rookie mistakes” here — GG’s been carving out her own artistic space for so long now, and doing the kind of comics no one else can even conceive of, much less execute, that she’s achieved something not even every cartoonist bothers to aspire to, namely : mastery of form, function, and concept. Her way of telling a story is absolutely unique, disarmingly intimate, and unquestionably perfect — and that’s a term that I promise you’ll never hear me invoke unless it’s earned beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Of course, doubt is a constant in this work, but the way that doubt is expressed and communicated is never, well, in any. The calendar just turned, to be sure — we’re only four days in as I write this — but if even a small handful of 2020’s still-forthcoming offerings are this creatively confident, then this will prove to be, as Sinatra said, “a very good year.” Even if that should come to pass, though, GG’s latest will be in a class by itself by sheer dint of its ingenuity, its fluency in its own self-created language — you hear plenty of talk about how one determines if a cartoonist is at the “top of their game,” but at the end of the day I believe you simply know it when you see it, and you see it here from first page to last.

If I had any shame, I suppose I’d stop laying superlatives upon a text that depicts the turmoil of a person whose self-esteem and self-confidence are always and forever in question, but my primary responsibility as a critic is to call it as it is — and I have no hesitation whatsoever in labeling Constantly a bona fide masterpiece.

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my ongoing work, so if you’d be so kind as to take a moment to give it a look and consider joining up, I’d be very appreciative indeed.

Oh, an I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

A Book With Few “Faults”

For the past few years (at least as far as I know), cartoonist Adam Meuse has been self-publishing highly eclectic collections of single-page strips that follow no particular set course other than where his Meuse (sorry, couldn’t resist) takes him, and the results,while predictably uneven, are also predictably unpredictable — and that alone makes them worth checking out. His latest, 2019’s Faults, continues this trend, yet it ups the ante by showing him not just following his sensibilities, but trusting them more implicitly — and as a result, his work is now flirting with “must-read” status.

At least by my accounting, at any rate — and since my opinions are in this driver’s seat around these parts (if nowhere else), that’s what matters here, right? Still, there’s no doubt Meuse has earned the accolades he’s receiving from me, his existential “riffing” on life’s absurdities now casting a fairy wide net and catching in its ropes everything from McDonald’s mascots to hermit crabs to Aztecs to insects to hamsters to cowboys to robots — and just about everything in between. If you like a comic where every page promises something entirely different than the one before, then you’ve come to the right place.

Thematic versatility isn’t the only type on display here, though, as Meuse’s illustration style, while rooted in classical cartooning, bobs and weaves from the fluid and conceptually “loose” to the “scratchy” and faux-slapdash with almost gleeful vigor, and there isn’t much by way of misalignment between “story” (or at least “set-up”) and art. This wasn’t always necessarily the case with his earlier comics, so again, we’ve got clear evidence of an upward creative trajectory here that warrants paying attention to.

As for the humor — and yes, these are, by and large, humor strips — it hits the mark a large percentage of the time, and mostly revolves around constructing obvious laughs out of premises that are uniformly anything but. It takes a few pages, perhaps, to get with the flow — although flow it certainly does — but once you do? You’re happy to go where Meuse takes you, and the number of rapid-fire gags and strips that reward a reasonable (although far from taxing) amount of reflection is nicely balanced. There’s no reinvention of the wheel going on here, but who needs that all the time? “Thoughtful, clever fun” is the order of the day with this full-color mini opus, and around these parts we’re perfectly good with that.

And “perfectly good,” as it happens, is an absolutely fair summation of Meuse’s latest in a general sense — which may sound like damning with faint praise, but certainly isn’t intended as such. After all, how many “perfectly good” comics have you read recently versus stuff that’s just alright, if that? Answer that one honestly and you’ll realize that what our guy Adam has managed to do here is no small feat. The “one-off strip” is a fairly tough thing to get exactly right, especially when you’re leaning pretty heavily on the surreal and bizarre, and to do so consistently takes legit skill. If you choose to discount this thing because it’s “perfectly good,” then shit — that’s your loss.

For my part, I’m more than pleased with Meuse’s continued refinement and development, and am anxious to see where his imagination and increasingly well-honed abilities take him next.

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Faults is available for $7.00 from Birdcage Bottom books at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/products/faults

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so please take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

Up “Snake Creek” — But With A Very Steady Paddle

What I think : Dav and Roy, the two protagonists in cartoonist Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek, might be a stand-in for the author himself and a walking potato, respectively. What I know : Lerman wrote and drew one of these strips per day throughout 2018 and 2019, and now they’re all collected in a single — and singularly impressive — paperback that he’s having printed, and offering for sale, via Lulu. I also know that you should buy it. And now I’m going to tell you why.

In a very real sense, these strips follow a direct through-line that you can trace all the way back to George Herriman, but they’re also undoubtedly — as well as unclassifiably (not a real word, I know) — contemporary, despite largely dealing with timeless physical and metaphysical themes. There’s a simple and understated elegance to Lerman’s cartooning that is, above all, smart — and is reflected in his charming wit and masterful sense of comic timing. He’s clearly done his homework, then, but this is in no way an academic exercise, since the most important lesson he’s taken to heart is that the best “gag”-style cartoons have a hell of a lot of heart themselves. As do these.

Avoiding over-thinking things is a tricky wicket when one is working within the strictures of a set format and formula, but Lerman’s four-panel grids feel expansive and rife with possibility — part of that’s down to his expert illustration, sure, which abides by its own kind of internal logic and privileges physicality and motion above all else, but a bigger part of it is down to his eye and ear for commonality and universality, his sheer facility at imbuing the outrageous with elements we can all relate to and draw a pleasing grin from. I mentioned Herriman before, but Charles Schulz, Frank King, and Walt Kelly were all masters of this, as well — and trust me when I say it only sounds absurd to mention Lerman’s name in the same breath as these greats. Within just a handful of this book’s 152 pages, he earns that distinction absolutely.

Which isn’t to say that there’s not room for improvement — there is. Lerman’s imagination is so fluid and amorphous that he sometimes seems to lose interest in plot threads that he was “all in” on just days prior (a fascinating nameless dog turns up for a time, only to make an abrupt exit), but I can forgive that because along the way he lands on inventive uses for pretty much all of his ideas, even those that are ultimately discarded, and watching a cartoonist “feel their way” through their own material is usually a fairly fascinating process in and of itself. Besides, the line between “anything can happen” and “hey, shit happens” is such a fine one that demarcating it is often an exercise in futility — and don’t we all appreciate it when comics have an element of the genuinely anarchic to them?

I know I do, at any rate — and if you do, as well, then I defy you to be anything but utterly captivated and frequently even transfixed by this work. I sincerely hope that the newspaper syndicates are paying attention to Lerman, because this is visionary, iconoclastic stuff that is nevertheless absolutely and immediately accessible to readers of all stripes, and from all walks of life.

In these fractured and harrowing times, gentle but assured musings and observations on everyday absurdities are both hard to come by, and exactly the sort of tonic we can all benefit from on occasion. Drew Lerman has a unique perspective that’s as invaluable as it is funny and intelligent, and with this book he makes a strong case that he might very well be our next great cartoonist.

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Snake Creek is available for $13.00 from the Lulu website at http://www.lulu.com/shop/drew-lerman/snake-creek/paperback/product-24211384.html

Also, this review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so do please take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse