Soul Death On The Installment Plan : Sam Grinberg’s “On A Hot Summer Night I Like To Eat My Favorite Cartoon Characters”

I’ve always been of a mind that the minute you find yourself inhabiting a suburban street — or, even worse, a cul-de-sac — the clock is ticking against you. A kind of apathy-by-osmosis begins to infect your being, slowly rotting you to the core, to the point where “ideas” such as “you don’t have anything to fear from the police if you haven’t done anything wrong” and “higher taxes on the rich are harmful to the economy” start to sound reasonable. I’m not sure if it’s something in the air, something in the (usually well) water, or something in the Muzak that gets pumped through the speakers in the park pavilions, but the suburbs fucking kill you — and they take their sweet time doing it.

Nobody gets this better than suburban youth, who by and large can’t wait to turn 18 and get the fuck out of Dodge, and nobody gets the fact that the youth get it better than Sam Grinberg, which might go some way toward explaining why he’s got a “day job” working on The Simpsons. In the two issues of his self-published comic Scumburbia, he’s cut to the core of the existential ennui that permeates every aspect of suburban “life” and “culture” with a kind of easy precision that can probable only come from someone who grew up immersed in that milieu, and his other recent (as in late 2019 if I’m not mistaken?) stand-alone mini, On A Hot Summer Night I Like To Eat My Favorite Cartoon Characters, offers one representation in microcosm after another of what makes his viewpoint both so unique and so obvious.

Mind you, I don’t invoke the term “obvious” in any sort of derogatory sense here, I only do so to point out that, well — pointing out the obvious is what Grinberg does best. And there’s a real skill involved in doing that emotively and effectively. It take a combination of talents, not the least of which is an ear for authentic dialogue, an intimate knowledge of the kind of lives you’re writing and drawing, an evocative but inherently un-fussy style of cartooning that makes every character look unique in the midst of utterly bland surroundings, and hey — if you’re got a decent sense of both humor and comic timing, that helps, too.

All of which means that the short-form strips and single-panel gags collected in this ‘zine somehow manage to drive home the doom and gloom of life in the ‘burbs without being too terribly “gloomy” or “doomy” in and of themselves. “How’s that work, then?” is a natural enough question following on from that, and I’m not entirely certain I can point to a succinct answer, but work it does in much the same way that, say, early Richard Linklater films do. Grinberg knows that it’s not easy being a punk outsider in the land of strip malls and office “parks,” but for any kid hoping to hold on to a shred of individuality and sanity, what other choice is there? Besides, it’s a lot more fun than, ya know, fitting in.

In a way, then, this comic — which, for the record, features a number of characters from Scumburbia, but knowledge of that series in no way a prerequisite to having a good time here — functions as both a grim appraisal of dead-end realities and a love letter to the kids who will do something, anything, to relieve the boredom. Even — maybe especially — if their acts of quasi-rebellion make no real sense and won’t change much of anything in the end. It’s the thought that counts, after all, even among those for whom thinking is not necessarily their strong suit.

Youthful disillusionment is part of life regardless of where you come from, of course — not too many rural kids tend to stick around after high school, for instance, and even kids from the big city dream of going somewhere bigger — but the suburbs seem tailor-made to produce nothng but. If you came up under similar circumstances, who knows? The cartooning in this little book is strong enough that it may even make you feel somewhat nostalgic for those days. If you were lucky enough to avoid the ‘bubs, it’ll make you feel grateful. And if you’re a kid slouching your way through the kind of existence it depicts right now? It offers proof that things get better if you make art from your life.

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On A Hot Summer Night I Like To Eat My Favorite Cartoon Characters is available for $10.00 from Sam Grinberg’s Storenvy site at https://samgrinberg.storenvy.com/products/28981372-on-a-hot-summer-night-i-like-to-eat-my-favorite-cartoon-characters-32-page-z

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 68 Saturation” in burnt orange.

Another Welcome “Cash Grab”

The tenth and most recent issue of Aaron Lange’s Cash Grab — his ‘zine of art, miscellany, and art miscellany published by Vancouver’s The Comix Company — feels like it’s been a long time coming because, hey, it actually has been : indeed, the year-plus interregnum between installments is uncharacteristic for this prolific cartoonist and illustrator. Of course, for any number of others this would be considered working at a pretty brisk clip, which puts Lange at something of a disadvantage in that he’s stuck answering “what’s taking you so long?”-type questions while many of his contemporaries are accustomed to hearing “take your time,” but in case anybody hasn’t noticed there’s been this pesky pandemic going on, and everybody’s lives are out of whack. The fast have become slow, the slow have become fast, and the readers of both have become frustratingly anxious.

For my own part, self-styled “cool customer” that I flatter/delude myself into believing that I am, I could of course give a fuck — all I care about at the end of the day is whether or not something is good, and I don’t think you can rush good work. Except, of course, when you can. But I suppose we’re getting pretty far afield from whatever point I meant to be making here, which I’m pretty sure was : Cash Grab #10 is probably the most interesting issue to date.

As well it should be, really, given that we live in interesting times that offer a near-limitless wellspring of inspiration for someone of Lange’s admittedly — and refreshingly — off-kilter sensibilities. These sensibilities results in Lange casting a pretty wide metaphorical “net,” and the one thing I personally value most in an art ‘zine is a feeling of never knowing what’s going to be on the next page, which describes this one to the proverbial “T” — we’ve got a mix here of shot-form illustrated narrative, portraiture, illustrated quotes, commission pieces, and even a little bit of “ripped from the headlines” stuff, all rendered with the keen eye and hand of a consummate craftsman who never half-asses any job and always seems to find a way to both cut to the chase of his subjects and to draw more out them (literally and figuratively) than one might expect. There’s an understated elegance to much of this, sure, but you never doubt that Lange works the hell out of every one of his drawings, as well.

Hell, for those of us who simply straight-up can’t draw, the manner in which Lange makes it look easy and breezy is a source of envy, but for those of us who can’t draw but know a little something about what the act of drawing entails, it’s plain as day that he rolls up his sleeves and gets in there and really exposes what makes a person tick — whether that person is a Hollywood celebrity, a murder victim, a neighborhood eccentric, or a political leader, Lange’s penchant for capturing, and subsequently expressing, detail goes beyond the physical as he busies himself about the task of showing not just who these folks are, but what they’re all about.

Which brings us to the meat of the matter, that being : any artist with the uncanny ability to consistently get inside the heads and hearts of those he or she is illustrating necessarily reveals something about themselves along the way : their interests, obsessions, peculiarities, pet peeves, and the like all inform their sensibilities, after all, and no selection of drawings is ever as truly “random” as it seems at first glance. To that end, then, it’s probably both fair and accurate to say that Lange’s most fascinating subject, when all is said and done, is himself, and so it’s fitting that this ‘zine ends with a self-portrait that ranks among not just he most accomplished illustrations in this issue, but of his entire artistic career to date.

If, then, “a little bit of everything” is your kind of thing, you won’t find a much more pleasing selection of that than is contained herein — but if you’re the sort of overly-analytical armchair “art snob” who likes to think they can discern the ins and outs of an artist’s mind via their work (who? Me?), then you’re probably going to enjoy this ‘zine all the more.

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Cash Grab #10 is available for $5.00 from The Comix Company’s website at https://thecomixcompany.ecrater.com/p/38311412/cash-grab-10-aaron-lange-underground#

Review wrist check – Longines “Legend Diver” riding a Crown & Buckle chevron adjustable strap in what they call “syrah” but I just call burgundy. Or wine. But I guess syrah is a type of wine, so maybe they’ve got the right color name after all.

Putting The “True” And “Crime” In True Crime : Cathy Hannah’s “The Lonely Grave Of Bobby Franks”

Let’s not kid ourselves : while the poor get locked up for penny-ante crimes like selling pot or smoking crack, the rich quite literally get away with murder on a massive scale. Whether it’s laying off thousands from their jobs with the stroke of a pen, or sending our young men and women in uniform off to die to protect their profit margins, the well-to-do are awash in river of blood, both economic and biological, for which they will never be called to account.

Still, every once in a blue moon, when their callousness and psychopathy leave the realm of the abstract and enter that of the personal, the results are too sickening for even their bought-off courts to ignore. Such was the case with Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb, two spoiled scions of privilege who, in 1924, kidnapped and murdered their 14-year-old neighbor, Bobby Franks, simply because they felt like it. And while it’s tempting — to say nothing of depressingly plausible — to speculate that they likely would have gotten away with it if their victim were poor, female, black, or any combination thereof, the simple fact is that they stuck within their own demographic and, as such, the “justice” system took an active interest in actually prosecuting them.

The crime lives on in infamy to this day — ditto for the investigation and trial which followed it — and has even been tackled in the comics medium previously, albeit at a remove, in Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven, but to my knowledge Chicago cartoonist Cathy Hannah’s new self-published squarebound comic, The Lonely Grave Of Bobby Franks, is the first to deal with every aspect of the so-called “Leopold And Loeb Murder” from start to finish, and we should probably add to that “post-finish” given that, as a local, she’s able to offer some informed insight into some of its repercussions that have reverberated in her city throughout the years and even continue to this day. In short, this is a breezy and quick, but undeniably comprehensive read, that admirably opts out of being a summation and instead offers readers a character study that nevertheless doesn’t skimp out on any pertinent details.

What really “sells” the whole narrative, though, is Hannah’s inspired cartooning, steeped as it is in aesthetics that are appropriate to and evocative of the period, but with an absolutely modern sensibility at its core. Her page layouts are dense, yet her use of space within each panel gives the images room to breathe, and while her figures are no doubt basic and display exaggerated body language, her faces are expressive and at times even downright nuanced. It’s a nice blend of elements new and old and, as such, is the perfect vehicle for visually communicating a story that is both very much of its time and timeless.

And speaking of time — or, rather, of timing — Hannah’s probably couldn’t be better, as true crime is all the rage these days, dominating bookstore shelves, broadcast television, streaming services, and especially podcasts to a degree that would probably make even the Kardashians envious. “If it bleeds, it leads” has been the grim battle cry of TV news for decades now, but who could have predicted that something that bled nearly a century ago would still hold the public in its thrall to this day? I guess a thorough-going examination of the true crime phenomenon and its attendant sociological implications is beyond the purview of a simple comic book review such as this, but I mention it in brief, more than anything, to give Hannah credit for approaching her subject matter in an entirely non-exploitative fashion that makes both the crime itself and the uncomfortable truths behind it seem shocking in a way that no amount of “shock value” can replicate.

Whether, then, you’re new to Leopold and Loeb, or are already well familiar with the intricacies and minutiae of the case, chances are that you’ll find this to be a darkly fascinating read. Hannah is a consummate comic book storyteller who has until now perhaps been best-known for her diary comics and autobio work, so I’m pleased to see her expanding her creative horizons and demonstrating her facility for other types of material. I’m certainly game to follow her wherever she goes next.

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The Lonely Grave Of Bobby Franks is available for $10.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/the-lonely-grave-of-bobby-franks

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53 Compression” in its modern classic “Blackout Edition” version. One day I suppose I should throw this on a cool NATO or something, but it looks so damn good on its bracelet that I can’t see much point to mixing things up.

Preview : “American Cult”

This isn’t my usual custom, but since I collaborated with Mike Freiheit on the story “Walk A Mile In My Shoes : A Jonestown History” (I wrote it, he drew it) in editor Robyn Chapman’s new Silver Sprocket-published anthology American Cult, I thought I’d shamelessly plug it here and, of course, encourage all of you to order it. I’ll have more to say about it on my Patreon in fairly short order, I would guess, but for now I’ll regale you all with some sample art pages from the book and the publisher’s official promotional text. I’ll resume regular programming (that being reviews, naturally) with my next post, I promise, but hey, this is the first comic I’ve been a part of as a creator, so I hope you don’t mind indulging me a bit — and I also hope you’ll consider supporting this very worthy project.

A graphic history of religious cults in American from the colonial era to today

From its earliest days, America has been home to spiritual seekers.

In 1694, the religious tolerance of the Pennsylvania Colony enticed a Transylvanian monk and his forty followers to cross the Atlantic. Almost two hundred years later, a charismatic preacher founded a utopian community in Oneida, New York, that practiced socialism and free love. In the 1960s and ’70s, a new generation of seekers gathered in vegetarian restaurants in Los Angeles, Satanic coffee shops in New Orleans, and fortified communes in Philadelphia. And in the twenty-first century, gurus use self-help seminars and get-rich-quick schemes to evangelize to their flocks.

Across the decades, Americans in search of divine truths have turned to unconventional prophets for the answers. Some of these prophets have demanded their faith, fortunes, and even their very lives. In American Cult, over twenty cartoonists explore the history of these groups with clarity and empathy—looking beyond the scandalous headlines to find the human stories within.

Featuring the talents of Lara Antal, Brian “Box” Brown, Ryan Carey, Rosa Colón Guerra, Mike Dawson, Lisa Rosalie Eisenberg, Mike Freiheit, Emi Gennis, Andrew Greenstone, Janet Harvey, Josh Kramer, Jesse Lambert, Ellen Lindner, Lonnie Mann, Ben Passmore, Jim Rugg, Robert Sergel, Vreni Stollberger, Steve Teare, and J.T. Yost.

May 2021; $24.99; Paperback; 208 B & W pages; ISBN: 978-1-945509-63-6; Diamond: FEB218242

American Cult is available for $24.99 from Silver Sprocket at https://store.silversprocket.net/products/american-cult-edited-by-robyn-chapman?_pos=1&_sid=f22136993&_ss=r

Eurocomics Spotlight : Tiago Manuel’s “Mishima : Manifesto De Laminas”

However you slice it — sorry, bad choice of words — they don’t make ’em like Yukio Mishima anymore : the epitome of the “warrior-poet” mystique made flesh and taken to its natural conclusions, his death by his own hand the only fitting capstone to a life that basically demanded nothing less for its final act, to this day he remains a revered figure in as many disparate milieus as he travelled in himself, from far-right nationalist revolutionary cells to the more extreme quarters of the queer BDSM underground. A mass of fascinating contradictions that could never be resolved, we can only really know him, perhaps, through his work, despite the best attempts of everyone from filmmaker Paul Schrader to Death In June’s Douglas P. to illuminate the enigma that was his life and art in their own art.

To that list add the name of Portuguese cartoonist/fine artist Tiago Manuel, who in 2008 produced a gallery exhibition entitled Mishima : Manifesto De Laminas —or Mishima : Blade Manifesto in English — a portion of which made it into print in 2015 in S! #20, from our Latvian friends at Kus!, and which has now (as of late last year) been published in its entirety by Portugal’s premier purveyor of all things artistically avant-garde, Chili Com Carne. Indeed, the release of CCC’s book coincided with the 50th anniversary of Mishima’s ritualistic act of seppuku, and while an extra layer of historic import isn’t exactly necessary to further one’s appreciation of what Manuel has achieved here, it certainly doesn’t hurt — even if the sword no doubt did.

Ostensibly a “graphic adaptation” of Mishima’s Confessions Of A Mask rendered as a series of wordless mixed-media illustrations (each presented within the gorgeous open-bound book adjacent a blank page for maximum consideration value and, if we’re being brutally honest, impact), it would be a mistake at best, betrayal at worst, to think of Manuel’s “suite” as concerning itself overly much with the literal aspects of its subject — after all, if conveying such were his intention, he could have simply gone the “prestige graphic novel” route. Rather, it is the character and philosophy of the work that we are both welcomed to explore and confronted by herein, and while original exhibition curator Antonio Mega Ferreira’s “Visions Of Mishima” text piece serves to set the table, it is the artwork that is the main course, replete as it is with all the martial precision, poetic beauty, unrequited longing, and psychosexual pathology that informed both the narrative it takes it cues from and, of course (and much more crucially, in my view) its author.

To that end, expect to start walking a knife’s edge of internally conflicted thoughts and feelings from the moment you open this darkly exquisite volume until the moment you close it — and expect to keep walking it in the days after. I’m not privy to Manuel’s thoughts or feelings on either Confessions Of A Mask or Mishima himself, but there’s a very real sense here of someone trying to work all that out through his art. By turns respectful bordering on the humble, contemplative, elegiac, and despondent, the medium is the message here, but the messages are as much in conflict with one another as they are conversation — one image is turbulent and immediate, the next reflective with an air of the forlorn, and all points in between make themselves both known and felt along the way. If you’re looking for resolution of and to any of it, there’s none to be had — and that, of course, is both its beauty and its tragedy.

I’ll admit that may be a curious choice of words, as Mishima himself would likely blanche at being described as a tragic figure, yet his work is positively redolent with it, and all of it is ultimately unresolvable. After all, we’re talking about a guy who was at war with modernity itself, and who largely concerned himself with telling the stories of characters hopelessly encumbered by both its weight and the uni-directional arrow of its purported trajectory. Manuel’s task of communicating that via purely visual means is a daunting one, to be sure, but he never misses the mark, and if the examples included with this review — taken from the publisher’s own blog site — aren’t enough to convince you of that, then who are we kidding? It’s an equally safe bet that no amount of blathering on my part will, either.

What I can say with a fair degree of certainty is that ultimately this isn’t a book that you “come to terms with” in a traditional sense so much as it is one that you continue to ruminate upon and analyze your own reactions to — it’s a fait accompli, as is the life of the author whose work inspired it, but as is the case with that life, deciphering its meaning, its purpose, and its repercussions and ramifications is an ongoing and ever-evolving process that, if you’re not careful, may just tell you more about yourself than it does anything else.

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Mishima : Manifesto De Laminas is available for 15 Euros from Chili Com Carne’s website at https://www.chilicomcarne.com/index.php/shop/novidades-new/04-mishima-manifesto-de-l%C3%A2minas-detail

Review wrist check – Formex “Essence Automatic Chronometer” brown dial model riding Formex’s own (and, it’s gotta be said, exceptionally well-made) stainless steel bracelet.

In Defense Of Traditional Comics : Jack Turnbull’s “The Wash-A-Shores”

I’ll be the first to admit that, around these parts, I tend to let my biases as a reader show, and that they inform (or maybe that shout be infect?) my biases as a critic. Stuff that can generally be described as “avant-garde,” or as “art comics,” or at the very least as “non-traditional” tends to be what I prefer to spend my time with and on, and I also give extra consideration to work that I haven’t seen reviewed anywhere else. Whether this is good or bad I leave up to each reader of this blog to decide for themselves, but I’d be lying if I said every single comic that I either purchase or receive is given absolutely equal consideration when it comes to deciding whether or not I want to take the time to review it.

And yet — there’s certainly nothing wrong with good, old-fashioned narrative comics. Nor with narrative comics illustrated in a conventional sequential art style. In fact, when they’re done well, they can be every bit as aesthetically and intellectually rewarding as the more “far-out” stuff.

Which isn’t to say that the latest self-published comic from the always-fascinating Jack Turnbull, The Wash-A-Shores, isn’t “far out” — it surely is. And yet, at its core there is a commitment to both traditional comics scripting and art that its deliriously non-traditional cover wouldn’t lead a reasonable person to expect to find. Still, just because something is, in fact, traditionally structured and executed doesn’t mean that it can’t subvert expectations — and Turnbull not only manages to do so frequently, I dare say he also does so gleefully.

That, I guess, is my long-winded and borderline-pompous way of saying that this is a very funny comic, sure, but more importantly it’s a fun one — Turnbull sinks his teeth into this tale of jaded seafarers who are prone to philosophical diatribes, dubious decision-making, and nostalgic reveries, and along the way makes some cogent points about the “pirate utopias” of anarchist legend while laying out the fundamental “ground rules” of a legendary world of his own creation. In short, then, what we have here is something that plays with standard genre tropes ranging from treasure-hunting to sea monsters, yet explores them from a decidedly off-kilter vantage point that is communicated by means of a highly accessible, indeed even a populist, methodology.

Of course, if you want to stand out in a field as admittedly crowded as that of “normal” comic books, you’d better do what you do damn well, and on that score no one need worry — Turnbull’s art is as dynamic as it is detailed, and as contemporary as it is classical. He’s not one to cut corners or to shirk basic visual storytelling responsibilities, but his commitment to craft doesn’t preclude him from clearly having a good time drawing, and that shines through most obviously in his rich linework and his wonderfully expressive faces and figures. This is cartooning that is informed by every era — and would therefore look good in any era, since it doesn’t date itself by dint of its style.
And, quite honestly, the same can be said for the comic as a whole. Certainly the “freedom vs. feudalism” subplot that underlies much of the story seems to have special allegorical relevance in the here and know, but a reader in 1921 would probably feel much the same, and a reader in 2121 likely will, as well. Which might just mean that Turnbull has created something more than simply “good” here, and has instead achieved something that all artists strive for, to one degree or another — true timelessness.

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The Wash-A-Shores is available for $9.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/washashores.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 I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to check it our by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

“Crusher Loves Bleeder Bleeder Loves Crusher” #1 : With Friends Like These —

Somewhere in the overgrown fields of soul-dead suburbia, your typical delinquent young teenage boy has made a new friend — but is his new friend only out for blood? And would that question lead you to assume said new friend is probably a vampire?

Spoiler alert : he’s actually a mutant quasi-anthropomorphic fuzzy mosquito (or something), so his lust for the red stuff is just as natural as breathing is to you or me. But maybe we’re putting the cart before the horse by pondering the (somewhat) philosophical questions at the heart of writer Thomas Stemrich and artist Patrick Keck’s new full-sized (and, for the record, self-published) comic ‘zine Crusher Loves Bleeder Bleeder Loves Crusher #1 prior to considering the work on its technical merits? I guess we are.

I’ve reviewed Keck’s work in the past, most recently his years-in-the-making solo graphic novel Peepers over at Solrad, and to say he’s always surprising is to sell him short : there’s a rich wellspring of creativity that he brings to every project, one heavily informed by traditional visual storytelling tropes and rhythms yet never less than utterly surprising for that fact; heck, I might even go so far as to say that getting readers to look at the familiar through an entirely, and singularly, unfamiliar lens is his greatest strength as a cartoonist. His narrative pacing and sense of panel and page composition in this one are downright cinematic, yet the metaphorical lens of his camera is almost always pointed, either directly or appealingly less than directly, where logic or reason would perhaps dictate that it shouldn’t be — the end result being that your eyes (and, I suppose, you mind) end up getting a full 360-degree view of what’s happening, but that view is served up in piecemeal fashion, which serves the twofold purpose of rewarding careful and attentive readers while converting the more, shall we say, casually involved into the ranks of the careful and attentive at the same time. It’s rather ingenious, it must be said, and it heightens the effect of splash pages like the one shown above by making them double as something of a “reveal” at the same time.

And what this book’s various and sundry “reveals” — errrr — reveal is, without exception, some seriously superb cartooning. Rich, inky, refreshingly un-self-conscious sequential art that doesn’t skimp on the details or cut corners, but most certainly does refuse to cross the line over into belabored or otherwise tedious over-rendering. Keck doesn’t show off, he shows — and that’s always the hallmark of somebody who’s genuinely firing on all creative cylinders. This kind of inherently smart approach also means that Keck is perfect for material that blends the everyday with the anything but, and if the brief plot “primer” provided at the outset of this review isn’t enough to convince you that’s exactly what we’ve got going on here, well — either your reading comprehension isn’t up to par, or my writing isn’t. Take your pick.

Stemrich, for his part, needn’t worry on that score as his writing most assuredly is up to the task here, and threads a pretty tricky needle between the emotional and the nauseating that takes some real understated finesse. For folks like myself who came of age reading too much Mike Diana, there’s a kind of tense sub-expectation that the “magic bug” is gonna turn out to be a perv and molest the kid at some point, but you can breathe easy : there’s actually a kind of bizarre quid pro quo of sorts going on here between boy and insect, each needing companionship for entirely different reasons — the question is, will they survive to remain friends for the long haul? Perhaps readers of Keck’s Patreon already know that answer, given this comic reprints material that first appeared on that site and continues to run to this day, if I’m not very much mistaken, but damn — I honestly think that even Patreon subscribers are going to want this print version, because Chris Cajero Cilla (a superb cartoonist in his own right) just plain knocks it out of the park with the job he does on the duo-tone screen printed covers in his capacity as print maestro of Sardine Can Press.

This comic is part one of two, so I suppose that means that there’s some small chance that the back half of the story will let the side down, but I think the odds of that are pretty remote — after all, tonally and thematically speaking we’re dealing with something pretty unique here, a hermetically-sealed world of its own where the line between grotesque and heartwarming isn’t just blurred, but obliterated altogether. I’m certainly anxious to see how it all wraps up — but I fully expect that, as with this issue, the wise move with the second one will be to read it on an empty stomach.

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Crusher Loves Bleeder Bleeder Loves Crusher #1 is available for $6.00 from Patrick Keck’s Storenvy site at https://patrickkeck.storenvy.com/products/31706515-crusher-loves-bleeder-bleeder-loves-crusher-no-1

Review wrist check – Yema “Navygraf Maxi Dial” riding its factory-issue (and amazingly comfortable) stainless steel bracelet.

“It’s A Tricky Spot To Be In” : Four Color Apocalypse Talks To Alex Graham About Life Before, During, And After “Dog Biscuits”

It’s no secret that Alex Graham’s Dog Biscuits, both in its original online iteration and its newly-released print version, has been one of the most talked-about comics of the so-called “pandemic era.” Timely, topical, and yet never anything less than intensely personal, its success has brought Graham new legions of fans/readers, and yet that success has also come, of course, with attendant challenges — and even pitfalls — of its own. Four Color Apocalypse recently had the opportunity to chat with the artist about her celebrated, and at times controversial, magnum opus from A to Z, Genesis to Exodus, and I’m pleased to present that conversation here for your enjoyment and edification.

Four Color Apocalypse : For readers who aren’t aware of the origins of Dog Biscuits, could you kindly explain how the strip first come about, and did you always plan for it to be as expansive as it ended up becoming — or did circumstances (i.e. COVID) force your hand and/or cause you to adjust your plans and ambitions for the story as it went along?


Alex Graham : I began drawing Dog Biscuits while I was sitting at the bar of the restaurant where I had been working for three years. I’d already been furloughed once and hired back after my restaurant received a pandemic loan, the terms of which required employees to be present for 40 hours a week no matter how busy we were (or weren’t). Business was dead. I’d just been sitting around reading books and scrolling the internet for weeks, while my coworkers watched Netflix on their iPads and watched sports on the bar TV. I had maybe one or two tables a day sometimes, and I was trying really hard not to resent every customer that walked through the front doors, but sometimes it was impossible.

 
At the time it’d been about a month and a half since the George Floyd murder, and protests were ramping up. When that first happened, I and many other artists experienced something of an ego death — nobody was making art because hey, art is a selfish pursuit and people are suffering, why should I focus on myself. I hadn’t touched a paint brush or a pencil or a pen in months, which was probably my longest break in years. Anyway, one day I’d been reading Factotum by Charles Bukowski at the bar (at work,) and I came to a paragraph where he’s talking about working in a dog biscuit factory. Suddenly I decided I was done reading, I wanted to draw. Or rather, I was going to force myself to draw because of how painfully bored I was — I don’t even think the passion was necessarily present. I went to the back office and helped myself to a few pieces of printer paper, returned to my seat and quickly, sloppily drew 6 empty panels on a page, and stared at it for a while. I was really running on an empty tank, there was zero inspiration present. I opened my book again and reread the paragraph where I’d left off, saw the words “dog biscuits” and just quickly, without pencil, drew a dog biscuits store front. Then I drew the second panel, thinking about how god awful these drawings are but, it’s okay, it’s just me stepping back into art after a hiatus. A warm up.


After I’d drawn all 6 panels, I decided that I didn’t like the female human character that I’d drawn (who would later become Rosie) and redrew the page — this time Rosie was a rabbit instead of a human. Even after redrawing it, I looked at the page and thought, these are some of the worst drawings I’ve ever done. But  I was drawing with a weak spirit, so I settled with it. I took photos with my iPhone of each panel, and posted them on instagram, sort of embarrassed of having posted something I wasn’t very proud of, but it felt nice to share something. I came back a little while later and people seemed really excited about it and I didn’t understand why… but it was encouraging. My spirit seemed to rouse, and I decided to keep at it, not knowing where the story was going. Draw a page, post, repeat, with no story planned out at all. People were digging it, I was still confused about why because these drawings were still pretty rough, but it was exciting to share some art.

 
I kept going like this for weeks — I’d come in to work, clock in, sit down at the bar, and take all my drawing supplies out of my backpack and just improvise the story as I went. My coworkers were so fucking supportive… they’d take tables for me so I could keep drawing all day. I was really lucky to have found that job a few years prior, I love those people so much and they helped me through a really rough few years of my life.


The first 100 or so pages of Dog Biscuits are totally improvised. I’d complete a page, take out another sheet and just lay it down as it occurred to me. I thought maybe I was making another 75 page comic like (earlier surreal sex/comedy comic) Going To Heaven. Then as I progressed, the plot started emerging. When it first came to me, I was out on a run, and (I thought) I came up with the ending of the story, which is when (spoiler alert) Gussy tapes the paper that says CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC to the front door of his dog biscuits boutique. I initially wanted that to be the last scene of the book. I realized it was a cynical ending, but I was comfortable with that — I wanted to show people how I was feeling inside about the state of things. I was feeling hopeless and nihilistic.


And so, as the comic progressed (and I was furloughed again at this time, and drawing Dog Biscuits became my full time job) I realized there was more to the story than just that. I’d become a bit infatuated with Gussy and wanted to expand on him, and the shit he’d been through, but I also wanted to leave people with a little crumb of hope. With all the shit we’d collectively experienced in those months, it almost felt a bit irresponsible to leave people on such a cynical and hopeless note, though I recognize there’s a place for that in art. I just didn’t want somebody to walk into traffic after reading Dog Biscuits… myself included.

4CA : Along those same lines, then, was any of Dog Biscuits well and truly plotted in advance, or did the whole thing just grow organically as it went along? Certainly some of the issues you address in the comic in relation to CHOP/CHAZ, the BLM movement, etc., really started to bubble to the surface of the public’s consciousness after the story was already going, but they fit into the overall “arc” of the narrative pretty organically. Had you been considering addressing those issues within the context of the strip from the outset, or did it just seem like a natural thing to work into it as “living history,” so to speak, unfolded before our eyes?


AG : It seems like I began drawing this story at the exact right moment to tie everything about the pandemic and police brutality and protests neatly into the plot. Because like I said, this story was improvised at first. I drew the first CHOP/CHAZ page the day after my partner and I had visited CHOP/CHAZ. That stuff was going on a half mile from where we lived, I stopped by the protests about three different times by myself. So I was up in it, taking it in up close, and it was inevitable that these things became threaded into the story.

I also felt that if I was going to write a pandemic story, I HAD to address police brutality in some way. If I didn’t, it would be out of deliberate avoidance, and that’s so typical of white artists and I didn’t want to be one of those people. But it made some people very uncomfortable. Some lugnut in the comments even tried to interrogate me at one point, saying “WHY ARE YOU FOCUSING SO MUCH ON POLICE BRUTALITY? YOU’RE JUST DISTRACTING FROM THE REST OF THE STORY,” and to me that was such a, for lack of a better term, privileged point of view, and it actually reaffirmed that I’d made the right choice by forcing people to think about police brutality instead of letting them escape into a love story.


It was tough, though, addressing that shit without overstepping a lot of different lines as a whitey. It’s a tricky spot to be in, not wanting to speak for the black experience as a white person, but also not wanting to be avoidant of addressing the black experience in that moment in history. I can’t say whether or not I pulled it off, but I did my best.

4CA : Prior to starting Dog Biscuits, you were working on a series called This Never Happened that now appears to have been set aside. Had you decided to shelve this prior to Dog Biscuits, or was it just a function of the latter taking up so much of your time that other things fell by the wayside?


AG : I did decide to quit This Never Happened a few months before I began Dog Biscuits, and I was really disappointed in myself for not finishing something. One of the tenets of my art practice is to finish EVERYTHING I start, even if it seems like it’s going to be a failed project — just finish it. But with This Never Happened, it was a semi-autobiographical story about the worst year of my life, about some awful choices I’d made that led me to be completely alone and fucked up. It was also a revenge piece about a cartoonist I’d dated who pretty much helped me ruin my life and then discarded me like I was a piece of trash.


Not only was the content of that story emotionally exhausting, the drawing style was too. I wanted that comic to prove that I was also good at drawing comics, not just writing them. The comics I’d drawn prior to this were pretty scratchy and rushed, so I wanted to show everyone that I could lay a perfect image down if I wanted to. I didn’t spare any detail, if the background of a panel extended all the way down several blocks I drew every signpost and building and street light. But it was back breaking… I could only do one page a day maximum and when I was done, I was emotionally and physically spent.


After I’d quit This Never Happened, I decided never to draw autobio comics again. And now I see people drawing autobio comics kind of creating personality feedback loops for themselves and becoming the characters they draw. Autobio can be a really toxic thing if you’re not careful.

4CA : Lane Yates addresses this issue in more substance in their afterword to the print edition of Dog Biscuits, but what was the reaction to it like for you personally as it went along? Or rather, what was your reaction TO the reaction like?


AG : Oh god, even trying to remember the “comments” experience is difficult because my brain is trying to block them out. That was actually kind of embarrassing for me to be honest. I’ve grown up on the internet, I’ve been an internet junky since I was 11 and I’m 33 now. I spent a lot of time on 4chan around the inception of the Pepe memes. So I thought that, if the day ever came where I would have to deal with comments and trolls, I’d be ready. But when it finally happened, I realized there was a learning curve to dealing with an internet mob. There were times where I KNEW someone was just trying to get a reaction out of me, but what they said pissed me off so much that I HAD to say something. And then it would keep me up all night, the fact that I took the bait.

 
The most difficult thing about it was when people were making damning character judgments on my characters for having normal flaws, dare I say… flaws that I have. “Write about what you know.” Like I said, I’m not making autobio comics anymore but, when you’re drawing every day and improvising dialogue and plot, a lot of yourself is going to end up in there. So there were times where I interjected and PLEADED with people to please not wish death on my characters, because it was hitting me where it hurts! Some of the shit that was being said took me back to being bullied in grade school. I actually cried one night after someone said “EW!” about the scene where Rosie and Gussy are first in bed together. That took me straight back to the locker room in middle school.


And the couple of times I did ask the audience to take a more analytical approach to their criticisms or engagements rather than reactive death wishes and condemnations… most people were really nice and understanding, and of course the wrong people were the ones feeling guilty and apologizing. The people that my pleading was directed at were basically telling me I was thin skinned and saying stuff about “death of the author” blah blah blah. Acting like they had some authority and ownership over the way I was presenting my FREE ENTERTAINMENT … FOR FREE.


4CA : With the previous response in mind, would you ever release another comic in daily chunks via instagram? Do you think it’s a healthy way to put work out there — for the artist as well as the audience?


AG : Despite the way the comments affected me, I do think, and always have, that there’s something great about having a comment section under these comics, especially during the pandemic where we’re lacking social connection and intimacy. I would never want to turn the comments off permanently. I do want to release another comic on instagram soon — hopefully I’ll be a little more detached next time and just let people talk amongst themselves.

4CA : Speaking of the print edition of Dog Biscuits, what prompted you to go the self-publishing route via Lulu, and are you pleased with your decision to do so?

AG : From the moment I realized I was going to see Dog Biscuits through to its completion, I knew it was going to be printed. Of course at first, I thought it was going to be a 75 page comic, so I was going to print it with Saigon (a popular Seattle print shop) like I’ve done with every other comic I’ve printed in Seattle. But when it passed 75, 150, 250, 300 pages… it started to dawn on me that I’d better get ready to lay down a lot of cash. I called Tan at Saigon and asked for a quote for a perfect bound book at 350 pages… and was floored at the price. But I was gonna make it happen one way or another. I knew I would have to do a pre-order thing and try to gather enough money to print 500 books, which I laugh at now because as of now I’m at over 1,000 sold.


When I announced tentative plans of the preorder situation, I can’t remember if I approached my friend Drew Lerman or if he approached me, but he’d printed one of his books on Lulu and we ended up talking about it. I was resistant at first to the idea of printing Dog Biscuits on Lulu because I was worried they would somehow own the book or I’d have to put their logo on the cover. But after some research, and examining Drew’s book and realizing their print job is kinda nice, I started warming up to the print-on-demand idea.


I wanted to self publish mainly to be able to release the story with some immediacy, because the things that were happening in it, were happening RIGHT NOW. And I’d promised people that immediacy, and some of them stopped reading the comic online after I’d promised to have it out by the end of the year (missed the mark by a few months though). 


Still, I’m glad I went with print on demand now that I’ve sold 1,000 copies, because there’s no way in hell I could’ve taken the time to ship that many books myself, especially after having spent seven months destroying my body and brain working on the book. 


4CA : Do you find the reaction to the print edition to be different in any way to what you were hearing from folks daily as it went along?


AG : The enthusiasm for the book seems to match up to the enthusiasm for the instagram comic. What’s different is that I don’t get to peer into the readers’ minds as they’re taking it in and see exactly what they’re reacting to. That’s what reviews are for at this stage.


4CA : It looks as though you’ve shifted your attention back to painting for the time being. Was this a deliberate move to “decompress” after doing such a long comic? Or is it more a case that cartooning for awhile, then painting for awhile, keeps your creative energies — as well as your interest in both mediums — fresh?


AG : Ideally ,I wanted to hit the ground running with another comic immediately after I’d finished Dog Biscuits. Because I know that Dog Biscuits is probably my greatest achievement in comics up to this point, but it won’t be the greatest comic I ever do. I can do better and I’m anxious to beat Dog Biscuits with a better story. Something completely different. I want to surprise myself and my readers and give them the kind of comic I want to read that doesn’t currently exist — and that WON’T exist unless I do it.


That being said, I have a few projects to catch up on first, and I also have seasons/cycles to the way I create. By the time I was finished with Dog Biscuits I was dying to paint again — I need to see some color and tell some stories without words. So I’ll probably paint for a few months and get sick of that and switch back to comics, but that’s good because it allows my next story to brew.

4CA : So, knowing that there are indeed more comics in your future, do you think they’ll be as immersive, even all-consuming, for you as Dog Biscuits was? Or does going back to more short-form work sound appealing at this point?


AG : I don’t think I have short form in me. I don’t think I can tell short stories, I don’t want to tell short stories. In the same way that I prefer painting on large canvases, I want to tell long stories. But next time I work on a long comic, I’m going to take it slow. By the time I’d finished Dog Biscuits, I felt like a decomposing corpse. I gave myself a few tarot readings as I was trying to transition into my next comic and every single one urged me to slow down and never mistreat myself like that again — not that I even needed to hear that from “beyond the veil”, because my body and brain were both screaming at me, but I’m stubborn and masochistic. So the next story will probably take twice as long, but that’s okay by me. I’ve established an audience and they seem pretty loyal, I’m sure they won’t mind if it takes a little longer next time.


4CA : Finally, were you able to get everything out of your system that you wanted to with Dog Biscuits? Did it dot every “I” and cross every “T” that you hoped it would? There’s an old cliche in sports about “leaving it all on the field,” and at the end of that comic it sure seemed to me like you had done that, like you had taken all these characters as far you wanted to go with them and said everything you wanted to say with them. Is their story well and truly finished in your mind, with nothing left out and no regrets about anything you could have done differently?


AG : Yes, I feel like the story went exactly the way I wanted to and that it ended exactly the way I wanted it to. I had a sense of closure with each character, in my way I got to say goodbye to each one, and the story ended naturally. Everyone said what they needed to say, and learned what they needed to learn.


However, two nights ago I had a dream that I had all this leftover material from Dog Biscuits and that I was going to release Dog Biscuits, part two. I saw some glimpses of some sex scenes and sad scenes and was really excited to release more material and I was like, “why have I been sitting on this? People are going to be mad that I’ve been hiding this.” But then I woke up and realized it was just a dream, and I was disappointed that all that material just vaporized, but… I won’t be making any more Dog Biscuits. One is enough.

I’d like to thank Alex for her time, as well as for her amazing comic, which you should definitely order if you haven’t done so already. It’s available via the Lulu website at https://www.lulu.com/en/us/shop/alex-graham/dog-biscuits/paperback/product-mgde9q.html?page=1&pageSize=4

“That Full Moon Feeling” — Hey, Witches And Werewolves Need Love, Too

I once opined — and I’m hardly the first to have done so, trust me — that it’s good practice for cartoonists, and really artists of all stripes, to step outside their comfort zones and try something different, but I’ll let you in on a little secret : the same is absolutely true for critics.

As prima facie evidence of this assertion, I offer up Austin-based cartoonist Ashley Robin Franklin’s new little book from Silver Sprocket, That Full Moon Feeling, which lithely threads the needle between two genres that are by and large of little interest to me, specifically romantic comedy and the supernatural, yet nevertheless managed to warm my cynical middle-aged cis white male heart and plant an entirely unforced smile on my face for the duration of its 64 pages. Which, admittedly, is me giving away the final verdict of this review early on, but I do so specifically to urge those like myself, who think this kind of thing is geared exclusively to the younger folks, to please give this entirely-worthy comic a chance.

Granted, I probably shouldn’t be surprised that Franklin won me over here given how impressed I was with her last effort, last year’s One Million Tiny Fires, but despite exploring some similar themes with regards to trust and intimacy issues, tonally this newly-released book couldn’t be more different — which only goes to show that Franklin is quickly establishing herself as a multi-faceted cartoonist whose art can’t be pigeon-holed into one particular category or other. That’s very good news, of course, but what makes it even more remarkable is that she’s chosen to prove her mettle, so to speak, at two ends of the storytelling spectrum that are, in many ways, diametrical opposites — horror and comedy. It’s one thing to run that gamut over time, to slowly work your way from Point A to Point B, but to go the direct route without passing go and collecting your $200 (sorry, Monopoly board game references do rather age me, don’t they?) takes more than skill, it also takes an incredible amount of sheer and unmitigated confidence.

Still, why not? I mean, Franklin’s got plenty to be confident about — and certainly seems to know how to draw inspiration from the everyday while also flavoring it with a dash of the extraordinary. To that end, while most of us probably don’t know anyone exactly like Suzy the witch and/or Jada the werewolf, we certainly know people very much like both of them, who are seeking to find companionship via dating apps and working overtime to make sure the impression they give in real life lives up to the one they proffer on the screen. The three dates we vicariously follow them on as readers each serve up their fair share of disasters ranging in severity from “shrug it off and move on” to “OMG I’m absolutely mortified,” but hey — haven’t we all been there and done that? Hell, even old-timers like me who last dated back in the days when you met people at bars or parties or through friends or what have you, rather than shopping for an ideal mate on our phones, know the thoughts and feelings running through the minds and hearts of these two young women pretty well and will have no problem being utterly charmed by their attempts to make something work against all odds.

As for Franklin’s cartooning, it’s as disarmingly charming as anything and everything else you’ll find here, simple lines that are clean and easy on the eyes on their surface, and belie a fairly obvious anime/manga influence, but that hold a surprising level of depth and resonance the longer one spends time looking at them — I’ve always harbored a fair degree of admiration for artists who can convey a maximum amount of visual information with minimal fuss or muss, and that really describes Franklin’s style in a nutshell. There’s nothing belabored going on here, no forced or cloying sentimentality creeping in at the margins, just skillful execution that matches classical styling with a decidedly contemporary sensibility. What, I ask you, isn’t to love about that?

Who are we kidding? Relationships are a tricky business — and that’s especially true during their formative stages. But you’re going to be wishing for a happy ending for these two would-be lovebirds from word “go” here, and for my own part, I find myself torn between thinking this earnest, unassuming comic is just perfect as is on the one hand, and hoping for a sequel at some point on the other. What I do know for certain is that whatever Ashley Robin Franklin does next, I’ll be there for it.

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That Full Moon Feeling is available for $14.99 from the Silver Sprocket website at https://store.silversprocket.net/products/that-full-moon-feeling-by-ashley-robin-franklin

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 appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

See What The Buzz Is About : Steve Lafler’s “BugHouse” Book One

It’s always a treat when a staple of your reading youth (and in this case I use the term “youth” advisedly, as I was well into my twenties when the series in question originally saw print) becomes available again for a new generation to enjoy — or for members of your own generation who may have missed out on it the first time around to finally discover for themselves. There’s bound to be a bit of risk involved in re-visiting something you hold in high esteem, though, isn’t there? I mean, a person’s tastes and expectations change over time, there’s no doubt about that — or at least they damn well should — so what appealed to you at age 25 stands a very real chance of just not doing the job for your 40-something self. Above and beyond that, though, there’s also a very real possibility that changing times in a general sense can blunt the efficacy of a former favorite, rendering it quaint at best, archaic at worst, through no fault of its own. And then, ya know, something could simply be not as good as you remember it being.

All of which is to say that, even though I look back on Steve Lafler’s BugHouse (which I first followed in single-issue “floppies” put out by Lafler’s own Cat-Head Comics imprint in the 1990s and then as a trilogy of graphic novels published by Top Shelf in the 2000s) with a tremendous degree of fondness, nostalgia alone isn’t enough to earn his hot-off-the-presses new printing of BugHouse Book One — which, in true “return to roots” form, he’s self-published —a glowing review from my middle-aged iteration, hardened and perhaps even made overly-critical by years in the comic book review game as I now am. The book has still gotta earn its keep based on its merits alone.

Within a few pages, though, my worries about how well it would hold up well and truly dissipated. Sure, a rush of memories came flooding back as I re-acquainted myself with tenor sax-man (sorry, -insect) supreme Jimmy Watt and his supporting cast of loveable beatnik miscreants as they attempt to make the leap from the “Big Band” era into the newfangled world of jazz — and to resist temptations of both the narcotic and femme fatale variety as they navigate the emerging musical and cultural landscape — but this wasn’t simply a case of something being “every bit as good now as it was then.” No, friends, this comic is even better than I remembered it being.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that my appreciation for what Lafler has achieved here is even greater now than it was at the time. Simply put, this is downright sublime cartooning that would — hell, that does — rise well above the pack in any era. Like Jimmy Watt himself, Lafler is at his best when he is both firmly in control and improvising in equal measure, and while there is a very definite narrative trajectory to this story, it’s in no way hurried or forced along. Lafler knows which “beats” he wants to hit, and trusts in his ability to bring them out rather than make them happen, and that makes all the difference in the world. He sets the tempo with strong, instantly-memorable characters, snappy dialogue, an absorbing premise, and flat-out virtuoso cartooning that puts you right inside the spaces (physical, mental, and emotional) his coterie of anthropomorphic insects are inhabiting, and from there, well — it’s pure comic book jazz.

Now, like any good jam session there are an awful lot of moving parts, but the beauty of the comics medium is that you can absorb each in your own time, so by all means — don’t be afraid to linger on the rich texturing and shading in any given panel, or the smooth flow of Lafler’s brush line. Take a moment to savor a particularly clever and well-timed line of dialogue. There’s a flow to this work, to be sure — one often as subtle as it is inexorable — but that doesn’t mean that you can’t and shouldn’t establish a rhythm of your own, as well. After all, a performer is nothing without an audience, and I defy anyone to sit through this performance without feeling the distinct urge to get up out of their seat and clap on any number of occasions.

A lot has changed since Lafler first put pen to paper and created what remains his magnum opus, but trust me when I say that it singles itself out as being utterly unique and special now just as it did then. This is a comic that transports you to a very singular and spectacularly-realized place and time and holds you fast to the point where you quite literally don’t want to leave. I felt absolutely privileged to pay a return visit to Lafler’s world, and envious of those who will be having the pleasure of experiencing it for the first time. Now more than ever, this stands out as one more the most purely enjoyable comics that I’ve ever read in my life.

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BugHouse Book One is available for $16.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/bughouse-book-1

Review wrist check – I couldn’t be happier with my latest acquisition, the Stella “Felix,” in the dial color they call “Downtown Red,” riding Stella’s own factory-issue black leather strap with cream-colored stitching. Of all the timepieces in my collection, this is probably the one best suited to a night out at the jazz club.