A Whole New World : Hurk’s “Jinx Freeze”

It can be a fickle bastard of a thing, this critiquing business. In theory, at any rate, you’re judging a work on its own merits and nothing else — how well it succeeds at establishing the terms of what it is, first off, and then subsequently delivering upon them. But who are we kidding? Outside influences, both subtle and less so, almost always figure into the equation on some level, the so-called “soft tyranny” of expectations being foremost among them. “Was this book all that I wanted or hoped for it to be?” is a question most critics ask themselves — fair or not; whether they even realize it or not.

It’s just as well, then, that every so often something comes along that blows that whole framework out of the water : a comic that, by its very nature, is steadfastly resistant to the “expectations game” on the one hand, and to comparison of any sort on the other. Something that makes its own rules, does things its own way, operates according to the dictates of its creator and to nothing or no one else. That “something” being, in this case, UK cartoonist Hurk’s 2021 Avery Hill-published graphic novel Jinx Freeze.

The comics medium itself is no longer a young one, it’s true, and so works that are completely original are tough to come by — maybe even flat-out impossible — but a book like this serves to, at the very least, remind one that, of all forms of art, comics remains the one with the most untapped potential. And hey, even if I’m only saying so myself and asking you to take me at my word, that right there is a big reason why I felt myself drawn toward analyzing and reviewing them in the first place. Sure, you might very well be able to place Hurk’s work somewhere along a stylistic continuum that includes names such as Mark Beyer, Kaz, Max Huffman, or Marc Bell (among others), but the spot it carves out for itself is, in point of fact, utterly its own, and as Jinx Freeze unfolds, even the least astute reader out there will get a very real sense of an artist claiming his thematic and stylistic territory while he goes about weaving an apparently-haphazard-yet-actually-quite-intricate series of vignettes into a tapestry that’s hitherto unseen because, frankly, it’s hitherto unimagined. Even the parts that don’t make “sense” in the conventional — errrmmm — sense of the term do so within the hermetic de facto confines of what I’ll call, at least here in a pinch, the “Hurk-verse.” And I guess now’s the point at which I hope the cartoonist himself, should he ever actually read this, can forgive me for coining that unfortunate term on the fly. But I effing digress —

So what do we have here, in purely narrative and aesthetic terms? Well, in one respect it’s a classic caper. In another, it’s a surreal spin on police procedurals. In still another, a sprawling-ensemble slapstick yarn. And in yet one more, a futuristic sci-fi comedy thriller. Upping the ante still further, each of these respective genre sandboxes the narrative is playing around in is shot through with elements of pastiche, and so it’s fair to say Hurk is both marginally beholden to them and sending them up (or, as they’d say on his side of the pond, “taking the piss out of them”) simultaneously. Now throw in the added elements of each component riffing off the others and being in conversation with them, all while being recognizably part of the same world and story thanks to Hurk’s vivid, energetic, stylized, colorful, geometrically-informed cartooning, and the end result is something that should, by all rights, probably be a cacophony of literary and visual noise, but instead builds up in truly symphonic fashion.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that the occasional note of discord doesn’t linger in the background or, on occasion, force itself to the fore. There are punchlines that fall flat, story “beats” that miss the mark — but the overall trajectory of the piece is never derailed in any appreciable, lasting manner, and the only thing that quells the urge to keep turning the pages is the desire to spend more time “oohing” and “aahing” over the ingenious little flourishes of the one you’re already on. Don’t be afraid to take your time with this comic, then, even if the pace is rapid and frenetic, verging on the breakneck.

And so we return to our analysis of the phenomenon of critical analysis itself. Jinx Freeze is, perhaps, easier to praise than it is to describe, at least for someone of my meager capabilities — and it’s arguably greater on the whole than the sum of its parts would, upon first reading at any rate, suggest. Although, the more I pore over it, the more I come to see the “little things” that come together to form the “big picture” are all there, either in plain sight or hiding in it. Here’s what I do know : I didn’t want it to end, and when it did, I wanted to start reading it all over again. And whaddya know? That’s exactly what I did.

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Jinx Freeze is available from Avery Hill Publishing at https://averyhillpublishing.bigcartel.com/product/pre-order-jinx-freeze-by-hurk

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

The Old College Try : Clio Isadora’s “Sour Pickles”

I wonder, if Dan Clowes knew that he’d be starting a decades-long “cottage industry” in comics with his “Art School Confidential” strip, if he’d take it all back?

Not that it was a bad strip, mind you — quite the opposite. It still makes me laugh to this day. But the art school memoir has grown and metastasized from that point into a beast that literally will not die, even if the critical and box office failure of Clowes and Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation of the aforementioned story probably should have, by all rights, put it to rest. Okay, sure, it hasn’t been all bad : Matthew Thurber’s Artcomic, Joseph Remnant’s Cartoon Clouds, and Walter Scott’s Wendy series stand out as high-water marks, but on the shallow end we’ve got, well — everything else.

Welcome to everything else — or, at the least (and the most), a fairly standard representative example of everything else. Clio Isadora’s Sour Pickles (Avery Hill, 2021) is certainly okay enough for what it is, sure, but the problem I have with it is that it’s not appreciably different or distinctive as far as art school memoirs go apart from the fact that her authorial stand-in protagonist, Pickles (hence the title) and her friend/fellow classmate, Radish (noticing a pattern here?) temporarily become speed freaks in order to power their way through finals. Which is one of the older tricks in the book for students cramming their way to the finish line, admittedly, but hasn’t been explored, to my knowledge, on the comics page before — and, to be honest, Isadora’s frenetic art style, which might best be described as a kind of “Peow Studio aesthetic on crank plus an intentionally garish color scheme,” works well for the instances when Pickles and Radish are wired as fuck, and really brings a reader inside their racing minds. Unfortunately, however, that’s only part of the book.

It honestly doesn’t take long for Isadora’s admittedly interesting art to begin to grate, especially when her adherence to it negates the emotional impact of certain scenes like a “friend of a friend” funeral and a decidedly anticlimactic graduation, but I do have to admit I admire her determination to present everything in a uniform visual language, as well as the confidence it takes to stick to those guns, even if I’m not convinced doing so was necessarily the greatest idea. Art is all about bold choices — or should be — but Isadora’s cartooning style for this book is one of those double-edged swords in that works really well in terms of communicating certain things, but falls flat when it comes to communicating others. I could see warming up to it more upon a second reading as being a distinct possibility, but my next task here, as fate would have it, is to let you know precisely why said hypothetical second reading probably isn’t in the offing.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before : Pickles is the only hard-working student in an arts program overflowing with spoiled trust-fund kids. Her instructors are hopelessly out of touch with their students. Her parents can’t relate to her, nor she to them. Life after graduation looks to be fraught with uncertainty. Her love life’s DOA. Why, it’s like she’s always stuck in second gear. It just hasn’t been her day, her week, her month, or even her year. And while I’m not saying this book is anywhere near as vapid as any given episode of Friends, that’s partly down to the simple fact that, let’s face it, nothing can be. I don’t think Isadora’s a cartoonist without ambition, or without the ability to see that ambition through to a reasonably compelling finished product (I haven’t seen her Is It Vague In Other Dimensions? ‘zine, but it comes highly recommended by people whose opinions I generally trust), but thematically she’s playing it really safe here : “write and draw what you know” is solid advice and all, but should come with the caveat “if you have something new to add to the conversation.” Isadora herself may, but unfortunately this comic does not.

On the plus side of the ledger, Isadora’s dialogue is sharp, clear, and natural, even if no one’s really saying anything we haven’t read before, and her sense of comic timing is spot-on : this story is frequently quite funny. But one can’t help but feel she’s going for a crowd-pleaser with this project rather than pushing her talents to their utmost. There’s enough here to ensure that I’ll be keeping an eye out for her next book in the hopes that she’ll do just that, but not quite enough that I can recommend this one.

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Sour Pickles is available from Avery Hill Publishing at https://averyhillpublishing.bigcartel.com/product/pre-order-sour-pickles-by-clio-isadora

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

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being : Karen Shangguan’s “Quiet Thoughts”

You know, it’s funny — I was just remarking to a couple of friends/fellow critics on Twitter earlier today that “understated and contemplative” just aren’t where my reading interests are at these days. It’s not only that they’ve been done done to death in contemporary “alternative” comics (although that surely plays a large part), either : it’s also that they’re a pretty cheap and easy pose for people without a whole hell of a lot to say if they want to try and come off as more profound than they actually are. Disappointed about where you are in life? Confused about the future? Feeling isolated, alone, and disconnected from humanity? Hey, that’s too bad and all, but how about you tell us something about yourself that actually sets you apart from the overwhelming majority of people in late-stage capitalist society?

Speaking of which, a lot of books that indulge in the kind of navel-gazing I’m bored to death with reek of privilege — after all, folks who are clocking 60 hours a week (or more) at back-breaking, dehumanizing menial jobs, or struggling to figure out how they’re going to feed their kids, simply don’t have the luxury of feeling sorry for themselves even though they surely have every right to do so. After all, reflecting on the admitted bummers of unrealized dreams, unfulfilled potential, and unrequited love is only something you can do if you’ve got the free time to do it with.

The simple fact that Vancouver-based artist Karen Shangguan’s Quiet Thoughts (Avery Hill, 2021) was able to impress me, then, given my current negative disposition toward all things blatantly introspective, is something of an achievement in and of itself. I mean, the title gives away what sort of work this is from word go, and it doesn’t lie : collected in this slender volume are visually lyrical musings, ruminations, and illustrations that, fair enough, present one person’s interpretation of various aspects of the human condition from the inside out, but Shangguan goes about her business with a deft enough touch that nothing on offer here will remind you of your annoyingly “angsty” friends — assuming you’re foolhardy enough to still keep any around.

Crucially, while her art and sparse prose are uniformly delicate — sometimes to the point of being downright ethereal — they’re imbued with enough earnestness to give them a conceptual weight that both accentuates, and creates a kind of aesthetic tension by default with, their formal presentation. Shangguan’s use of space and intuitive understanding of sequential rhythm are keys in this regard, communicating at all times the fleeting and transitory nature of, well, pretty much everything, but doing so in a way that manages to be instantly memorable while grasping for ideas and feelings that come and go like a summer cloud. Change is the only constant, as the old cliche goes, but hidden within that is something both inherently more haunting and more wondrous that Shaungguan’s work captures with disarming alacrity : impermanence is the only thing a person can actually count on.

Okay, yeah, there’s still something a bit plastic-bag-in-the-wind about all this, but unlike that infamously vapid scene from an infamously vapid film (American Beauty, in case you’d mercifully forgotten), Shangguan doesn’t hold your hand through the process of interpreting and understanding how she feels about what she’s poetically expounding upon. She establishes a flow from the outset and trusts in your ability as a reader to go with it. This takes more confidence than the tone of many of these pieces would at least imply this artist to be in possession of, but have it she does, and the end result is something of a gently bumpy glide through the semi-turbulent air of life itself — by turns almost too painful to contemplate and too beautiful to ever want to let go of.

And I guess that’s my cue to hop off before I get more pretentious than I’m comfortable with here, but kudos to Shangguan for making me look at things in a way that would normally work my nerves and not only get me to see the value in doing so, but even to enjoy it. There are some raw wounds to be found in this book, no doubt, but even they’re presented as exactly what they are : part of the rich overall tapestry of an existence that will be over with all too soon however one measures it. And I’ve got a sneaky feeling that when it’s all said and done, those contemplative moments of introspection that I claim to be so over and done with will turn out to be what life’s really been about all along — so hey, as Dave Gahan said, “enjoy the silence.”

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Quiet Thoughts can be ordered directly from Avery Hill Publishing at https://averyhillpublishing.bigcartel.com/product/quiet-thoughts-by-karen-shangguan

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

Better Late Than Never? “The Christmas Before/Santer”

The holidays may be mercifully over, but considering that I got my review copy of Ryan Alves and Ron Beek III’s new “split release” comic (co-published under the auspices of Alves’ AWE Comics and Beek’s Wtfawta), The Christmas Before/Santer, after the purportedly most wonderful time of the year had run its course, I was left with two options : review it now to keep the unseasonability of doing so to a minimum, or sit on it until next Christmas. I chose the former since the comic was still fresh in my mind and since it’s still available for purchase, which may not be the case in 11 months.

Before we delve too deeply into the particulars of the book itself, I should state that it seems the image of Santa Claus has fallen on rather hard times, which I suppose is to be expected in this cynical age, but we’re four decades on from films like Christmas Evil and Silent Night, Deadly Night, and the simple fact remains that there isn’t much of a “middle ground” for the character between jolly bringer of gifts and joy and psychotic serial killer apart from Bad Santa, which has become something of a latter-day holiday classic. You’d think somebody else would mine the fertile territory that is a debased but not altogether evil iteration of St. Nick, but for whatever reason, no one’s picked that ball up and run with it to any appreciable degree.

Not that I’m paying particularly close attention, mind you : Christmas and popular culture have merged into one inseparable commercialized entity at this point, and it’s one that I couldn’t frankly care less about — but that certainly didn’t preclude me from quite enjoying this comic, which is a testament in and of itself to the talents of the cartoonists who made it. I mean, if you can hold my interest with a Christmas-themed comic in the first place you’re doing something right, and if you can manage to do so in the days immediately following the end of a holiday season that I’m nothing but happy to see firmly in the rear view mirror, you’re doing something doubly right.

Not that I would expect anything less from these guys, both of whom have impressed me with their solo and collaborative efforts in the past, but I think turning their creative juices loose on a single connecting theme really draws attention to the different sensibilities each brings to the table, as well as the tonal similarities that make this pairing such a natural one. They’ve both, for instance, chosen to place their versions of St. Nick somewhere beneath Bad Santa but above the various “Santa slashers” on our makeshift “creepy Santa” scale, and both are masters at utilization of blacks, whites, and gray tones in their art (Alves’ cartooning leaning more toward abstraction and Beek’s more toward formal realism), but whereas Alves sets his wordless interpretive yarn in the dim reaches of prehistory, Beek’s story is very much contemporary, urban, and depressingly believable. Contrasts and convergences are the name of the game here, two sides of the same coin, so it’s entirely fitting that this is formatted as a true “flip book,” with each story given its own cover and both, quite literally, meeting in the middle.

The natural enough question following along from all this would be, of course, “so which story did you like better?,” but as much as this will no doubt sound like a cop-out, I found both to be successful for entirely different reasons. Alves’ The Christmas Before leaves one with more to think about, certainly, given its more mystical nature, but Beek’s Santer is open enough to interpretation as well and perhaps packs a bit more of a wallop in purely visceral terms, so — yeah, don’t force me to choose one or the other since I technically don’t have to anyway.

Besides, of utmost import here is the fact that they work really well together, something not every co-operative creative venture can claim — themed anthologies, in particular, having a rather spotty track record when it comes to maintaining an overall flow to them given that “all these comics are about a similar subject” is often an easy way to avoid the more challenging task of selecting material that either possesses an overall artistic cohesion or establishes a frisson of conceptual and aesthetic tension throughout, both of which of course offer their own rewards. Alves and Beek give us the best of both worlds here, presenting two discrete but linked comics stories that manage to play off each other and stand in stark contrast to one another. Don’t ask me how that works, just be glad that it does.

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The Christmas Before/Santer is available for $5.00 from the AWE Comics Storenvy site at https://www.storenvy.com/products/34444423-the-christmas-before-santer

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

Patreon Preview Week : “A Superhero Comic Book” By Ina Parsons

To wrap things up on my Patreon preview week here, I present a recent review of a VERY unique project —

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Domino — and I’m sure this is true for all the readers of this site who also buy books from them either “on the regular” or occasionally — is that once in awhile proprietor Austin English somehow gets ahold of something that utterly defies not only categorization, but even description. And while on the surface, at least, Ina Parsons’ A SUPERHERO COMIC BOOK would seem to do neither, given that its title clearly states both what it is AND what sort of genre category it fits into, let’s face it : appearances can be deceiving.

Ironically, however, it’s the APPEARANCE of the three (to date) purported “comic books” in this series that’s the first thing to clue you in to the fact that there’s something very different going on here : roughly the size of maybe a kid’s hand, each “issue” consists of four heavy cardstock “pages” glued (I think, at any rate) inside even HEAVIER cardboard “covers” — we’re clearly talking, then, about genuinely HAND-MADE items here, with each “cover” and “back cover” consisting of reverse-image collage art and each interior image being a double-“page” spread that juxtaposes a provocative sentence fragment with, again, frankly mysterious collages, each of which uniformly evokes the look and feel of photographic negatives, albeit negatives shot through with intentionally garish color schemes.

 Hey, I TOLD YOU this shit was hard to describe — I really am doing my best, promise.

As for what’s “happening” in the “story,” it would appear that some human test subject or other is strapped down to a table and being “gifted” with super-powers of some sort by a shadowy group of doctors, and that said subject is both excited and terrified at the prospect, as one probably would be under the circumstances — whatever those circumstances, ya know, are. That’s all we know so far, and even THAT is up for debate. What ISN’T, however, is that this project has already redefined the parameters and possibilities of both genre fiction AND “chapbook”-formatted art.

In fairness, though, it had damn well BETTER break some new ground given the price tag attached to it : after all, each “issue” costs ten bucks. And while there’s no doubt the minute you look at one of these “comic books” that MORE than ten dollars’ worth of labor went into putting the whole thing together, that’s still a lot of money to spend on what is, at the end of the day, a small art object moreso than it is a “book” per se. All that being said, though, the real question here is : leaving aside what went into it, can you possibly get your money’s worth OUT of it?

That all depends, I suppose, on something we’ll call, for lack of a more readily-available term, the “appreciation factor.” If you derive personal satisfaction from immersing yourself within a highly personal and distinctive artistic vision the likes of which you’ll quite literally find NOWHERE else, then the answer is a very enthusiastic “yes.” But if you don’t have the time, inclination, or desire to grapple with this work on anything more than a liminal “surface” level (and absolutely no judgments here if this describes you — we all have our own individual tastes), then I can’t in good conscience recommend you buy these “comics.” They demand that you meet them on their own terms, and the very first of those terms is decoding precisely what the REST of the terms are. Certainties are few and far between here, it’s true, but while A SUPERHERO COMIC BOOK doesn’t fit any preconceived notions of WHAT superhero comic books are, there’s still no real question that it is EXACTLY what it bills itself as being.

I also think it’s reasonable to assume, even at this apparently-early stage, that this work roughly fits into the category of “superhero deconstruction” — something that’s been so done to death that I can easily understand why even reading those words would put somebody off. But it’s not deconstructing the superhero via narrative means alone. Visually, formally, even conceptually, Parsons is splitting the idea apart like Oppenheimer did with the atom. There’s no telling what will emerge from it — perhaps, at least in part, because there’s no telling where we are within the overall framework of the project right now — but it’s sure to be fascinating, regardless of whether or not it’s entirely decipherable.

If your interest in piqued, check out more by going over to http://dominobooks.org/superhero1.html

And if your interest is piqued by the preview content I’ve been presenting this week, please check out more by going over to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Patreon Preview Week : “Marshal Law : The Deluxe Edition” By Pat Mills And Kevin O’Neill

Next up on our Patreon preview week is a representative example of an occasional series I have going on there called “Retro Comics Corner” where I take a break from reviewing contemporary comics to cast a critical eye on older stuff. If you fid it to your liking, please consider signing up for said Patreon, a link to which will follow this review.

What a long, strange trip it’s been for Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s MARSHAL LAW. Originally “green-lit” by Archie Goodwin, then-head honcho of Marvel’s creator-owned Epic Comics line, back in 1987 as a kind of “last word” on super-hero deconstruction, the creators followed Goodwin out the door when he left for DC, but opted not to join him there, instead throwing in their lot with short-lived British comics publishing venture Apocalypse (where Mills was put in charge of the equally-shot-lived TOXIC! anthology title) before returning the project back to these shores via Dark Horse. The eventual end of the comic (and the character) as a going concern didn’t mean Mills and O’Neill were done with their vagabond ways, though —

In 2010, Top Shelf announced that they had entered into an agreement with the pair to publish an omnibus collection of all of Marshal’s appearances, even his late-period crossovers with Erik Larsen’s SAVAGE DRAGON, Clive Barker’s PINHEAD, and Doug Mahnke’s THE MASK, but somehow that fell by the wayside, and when we finally DID get a “definitive” MARSHAL LAW book, it came in the form of DC’s 2013 MARSHAL LAW : THE DELUXE EDITION,  a snazzy hardcover that was notably WITHOUT the “team-up” comics which had originally been slated for inclusion. Methinks copyright issues are the primary reason that this supposedly “complete” collection isn’t, in fact, complete, but still — at nearly 500 pages, it’s at the very least a COMPREHENSIVE volume by anyone’s definition of the word.

It’s also a DAMNED uneven one, truth be told. but the responsibility for that should be laid squarely on the shoulders of Mills and O’Neill themselves, who kept this concept going well beyond it’s “sell-by” date, with each outing delivering diminishing returns until all that was left was hollow self-parody. Make no mistake, though : the first MARSHAL LAW series, latterly sub-titled “Fear And Loathing,” is great fun and succeeds wildly in chiseling an epitaph on the entire concept of the super-hero in general. Sure, there’s a somewhat predictable mystery story shoehorned into the proceedings that revolves around one of the more painfully obvious “MacGuffins” you’re ever likely to come across, but that’s not REALLY what the comic was about, per se : rather, it was about Mills and O’Neill venting their spleen on super-heroes on a conceptual level, and on the hyper-violent “realistic” iterations of them that were polluting the comics landscape at the time in particular. Sure, it was self-indulgent to the point of being borderline-masturbatory, but that was the whole POINT. These two hated super-heroes, and even more than that hated what had BECOME of super-heroes, and they wanted to hammer that hatred home in a manner that mocked and ridiculed the genre’s excesses by dialing them up to 11. This is a narrow creative remit, to be sure, but they hit it out of the park.

Lost in all the hubbub, though, is the obvious debt the whole premise owed to JUDGE DREDD, with Marshal himself essentially being a stand-in for his more famous predecessor and the ruined post-apocalyptic hellscape of San Futuro functioning as Mills and O’Neill’s very own Mega-City One. Both protagonist and city were exceptionally well thought-out, however, it must be said, and very few exercises in “borrowed” world-building have anywhere near the effort put into them that this one did. No points for originality, then, but points APLENTY for execution.

Cracks in the firmament began to show pretty quickly after “Fear And Loathing,” though : when next we encountered Marshal, it was in a series of oversized one-offs that would pop up sporadically, with dead giveaways about the plots of each being baked right into the titles : “Marshal Law Takes Manhattan,” “Kingdom Of The Blind,” “The Hateful Dead,” and “Super Babylon” won’t leave anyone wondering what the hell is happening in the books themselves,  and it’s no exaggeration to say that each is  more concerned with upping the ante in terms of overall OTT-ness than they are about anything else. Kudos to O’Neill for clearly having a blast delineating all the carnage Mills could throw his way, but by the time of Marshal’s final solo adventure, the two-part “Secret Tribunal,” the comic was little more than a “greatest hits” pastiche forever seeking to re-capture some frisson of its faded glory. There was still a fair amount of stupid fun to be had for readers, sure, but even then most of that stupid fun came tinged with hollow reminders of just how fucking COOL this comic USED to be.

By the time this book ends, then, it’s honestly no stretch to say that you’ll be rather glad it’s over, but there are a smattering of extras on hand to make you feel good about the purchase, including a highly-detailed full color map of San Futuro, some “virgin” cover art, and a couple of early-version character sketches. None of this is earth-shaking stuff by any stretch, and my understanding is that much of it is “ported over” from an earlier Graphitti Designs collection of “Fear And Loathing” and “Marshal Law Takes Manhattan” that boasts much more in terms of backmatter (good luck finding that!), but again : this is all more than exhaustive enough for anyone other than the hardest of hard-core fans. Unless you happen to number yourself among that lot, then, the MAIN value to be had from this collection is twofold : it reminds you of just how apropos for its time the first MARSHAL LAW series was — and of how quickly the times passed poor old Marshal by. “Fear And Loathing” is certainly good enough to DESERVE to stand as a capstone on the entire concept of ultra-violent, “mature” super-hero revisionism, but the fact that it DOESN’T is at least partially down to Mills and O’Neill’s decision to keep the concept going beyond that point.

Want more? Then please give my Patreon a look by heading over to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Patreon Preview Week : “Beatnik Buenos Aires” By Diego Arandojo And Facundo Percio

Continuing with our “preview week” of content originally posted on my Patreon, here’s a recent-ish review I wrote of Diego Arandojo and Facundo Percio’s BEATNIK BUENOS AIRES, published in English in 2021 by Fantagraphics —

There are three kinds of historical narratives — those that relate the nuts and bolts of the particular epoch they’re analyzing, those that capture and evoke the MOOD and ATMOSPHERE of the time, and those that manage to do both. 

The comics medium is uniquely suited to the second option, of course, being a visual means of communication, but that doesn’t preclude the first and third options from being on the table, as it were, as well — when you’ve only got 96 pages to work with, though, you’d better figure out precisely what it is you’re looking to do if you want to do it WELL. There’s not much room for false steps when you’re operating within the strictures of a concise page count, after all, and there’s even LESS time to recover from them.

To that end, the Argentinian creative team of writer Diego Arandojo and artist Facudo Percio get right to work on delivering the goods in BEATNIK BUENOS AIRES (originally published on their native soil in 2019 and released in an English-language edition earlier this year by Fantagraphics, with translation by Andrea Rosenberg), a sweeping overview of the dimly-lit cafes and eccentric creative personages that made up the largely-forgotten 1960s (to be specific, 1963) Bohemian scene in their country’s capitol city. To their credit, the narrative doesn’t FEEL rushed in any way — and Percio’s exquisitely moody charcoal illustrations certainly LOOK anything but — yet there’s an urgency to the pacing here that belies its breezy tone. All of which is to say, there’s a LOT going on, but we are only given crucial glimpses of a LITTLE of it.

This, however, is not a criticism — in fact, the ingenious structure herein really works, the book’s 13 short chapters, each focused on a different artist, coalescing into an eminently readable (and again, because it bears repeating, visually GORGEOUS) tapestry that avails itself of the second of three storytelling options I mentioned at the outset, with mood and atmosphere taking precedence over the grim and gritty details.

Which isn’t to say that you’re not afforded one tantalizing peek after another into the places, people, and events that made this largely sub rosa cultural renaissance so special, only that these collaborators are far more concerned with imparting the essential CHARACTER of the period than they are its minutiae. You’ll be left wanting more, absolutely, but that’s as much a testament to the POWER of the craft on display here than it is to any of its shortcomings — and there are endnotes at the back for those looking to branch off into some independent researches of their own.

Still, this scattershot approach is not without its shortcomings — without some sort of fuller meat and bones context, the actions of an art forger and a photographer who damn near kills his girlfriend come off as too matter-of-fact in their presentation/recounting for their own good, and while we get a taste of the unfortunate sexism that was rife in this counter-cultural milieu, Arandojo never takes it upon himself to take the dudes perpetrating it to task for it in any way. In fact, sometimes his overall tone can be a bit too hagiographic to be considered either honest OR effective.

These are no mere minor quibbles, I’ll grant you, but in the overall scheme of things they certainly don’t rise to the level of being “deal-breakers,” either. This is an IMPRESSIONTIC overview first and foremost, remember, and erring on the side of the overly-comprehensive would likely get in the way of the primary task at hand, that being to capture the essence of the overall local zeitgeist. With another hundred pages (at least), Arandojo and Percio would certainly have been able to pull off something more exhaustive, but then some of that urgency I spoke so highly of would necessarily have been, if not lost, at the very least hopelessly bogged down.

Whether or not you view this comic as a modest little masterwork or an intriguing but ultimately pointless exercise in self-indulgence, then, rests largely on whether or not you’re willing to meet it on its own terms — it achieves almost all of what it sets out to do, some notable exceptions aside, but if that’s ENOUGH for you or not is something only you can decide for yourself. All I know for certain is that Arandojo and Percio made me smell the cigarette smoke, hear the jazz, and feel the heat of the creative energy that were all hanging so heavily in that rarefied 1963 Buenos Aires air.

Interested in more? Then please take a look at my Patreon, the blatant promotion of which is, after all, what this week is all about. Here’s the link : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Patreon Preview Week : “Scoop Scuttle And His Pals : The Crackpot Comics Of Basil Wolverton,” Edited By Greg Sadowski

I do this once a year, and figured the first week of the year might be a better time for it than some random week in July or August or whatever — essentially the point here being, and I’m not too proud to admit it, to gin up a little interest in my Patreon site by offering everyone a sampling of the wares they’ll find if they decide to join up. I update it three times weekly, and seriously, it does help make all this writing (somewhat) financially viable. Plus, we’ve got a great group of folks on there, the conversation in the comments section is usually pretty lively, and everyone whose a member is, at the risk of sounding corny, more than just a member, they’re a friend. And couldn’t we all do with more of those in life? Anyway, first up is a review I did a couple months back of editor Greg Sadowski’s 2021 Fantagraphics collection SCOOP SCUTTLE AND HIS PALS : THE CRACKPOT COMICS OF BASIL WOVERTON, with a link to my Patreon at the end if you’re interested in reading more stuff of this nature..

Most people are well aware that visionary cartoonist Basil Wolverton’s legendary contributions to MAD were hardly his first go-’round with humor strips, but leave it to Wolverton scholar par excellence Greg Sadowski to curate a long-overdue collection of some of his most obscure and overlooked comedic creations of the 1940s and 1950s : goofball reporter Scoop Scuttle, magic-nosed swami Mystic Moot, idiot savant cowboy Bingbang Buster and his horse Hedy, and slapstick spacefarer Jumpin’ Jupiter. To say that none of these characters made much by way of a lasting impression on the readership of the time is undoubtedly true, sure — but each in their own way presaged much of the madcap shenanigans to come from Wolverton’s mind and pen, and their misadventures are sure to delight even the most jaded of modern readers.

Which, admittedly, is a camp that I all-too-frequently find myself numbered amongst, given my frankly robust reading schedule, yet even for those of us who’ve literally seen it all before, there’s something about seeing how it was done earlier that feels like, if you’ll forgive the cliche, a breath of fresh air. And talking of cliches —

OF COURSE they’re a dime a dozen in these pages, but Wolverton’s ability to poke good-natured fun at them remains an unbridled joy, even if the occasional ethnic stereotype rightly gives today’s readers some pause. That being said, such offensive caricatures are in far shorter supply in Wolverton’s work than they are in that of many of his contemporaries, and the persons, places, and things he draws are so uniformly outlandish that they don’t especially stand out from what’s more or less ALWAYS a crowded field of visual eccentricities. Simply stated, then, it’s safe to say that these stories (and it should be stated for the record that Sadowski presents the printed exploits of all four characters in their entirety) were all constructed as FUN strips fist and foremost, and that they remain precisely that to this day.

Admittedly, there’s no escaping the fact that these are “toned down” a notch compared to Wolverton’s MAD work, but it’s intriguing to see him feeling his way forward, so to speak, and it’s also important to remember that he was working under undoubtedly tighter editorial standards. Even for all that, though, there’s a tremendous amount of innovation on display in many of these strips, and not just in terms of the far-out sound effects that Sadowski draws particular attention to in his thoroughly absorbing introductory essay — indeed, the page layouts, intuitive flow of the action, outrageous character designs, and even some of the plot twists are all several levels above and beyond the standard humor comics fare of the era.

None of which means this isn’t ultimately formulaic stuff, mind you — but a big part of Wolverton’s genius always rested in his ability to thoroughly subvert expectation WITHIN a given formula; to give readers a combination of MORE than what they bargained for and EXACTLY what they bargained for simultaneously. In that respect, then, this necessarily “hemmed in” work could potentially be said to represent a MORE INGENIOUS distillation of the “Wolverton ethos,” if you will, than later material where he was more free to let it all hang out.

Sure, ultimately I don’t think there’s any argument that SCOOP SCUTTLE AND HIS PALS will primarily be of interest to hard-core Wolverton aficionados above all (certainly the admirable amount of care that went into the flat-out amazing restoration process makes this an essential purchase even for collectors who might own a fair number of time-yellowed originals), but it’s also this critic’s considered opinion that Sadowski has managed to put together a collection that damn near ANYONE can take a tremendous amount of enjoyment from, be they crusty veteran or member of comics laity. Given what we’ve all been through over the past year and change, some extra laughter in our lives is likely to be welcomed by anyone and everyone, and if the source of that laughter is 70-80 years old, then hell, that’s reason to be IMPRESSED as well as amused.

Okay, I hope you’ve enjoyed this first little sample offering. If you’re interested in more, my Patreon costs as little as a dollar a month to join and can be found by heading over to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

At last we reach the finish line with the sixth and final of our “Best of 2021” lists. This time up the category is TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS, which I hope is fairly self-explanatory : new and original works in the so-called “graphic novel” format that have not been previously serialized, at least in anything like their entirety, either physically or digitally. There were many excellent books to choose from this year, and narrowing it down to my ten favorites was a pretty tough task. Here’s what I came up with :

10. Penny By Karl Stevens (Chronicle Books) – While not a “graphic memoirist” per se, Stevens always finds inspiration for his lavishly illustrated stories pretty close to home : this time out it’s his cat’s turn to have adventures ranging from the cosmic to the banal and everything in between. Seriously, if this book doesn’t move you, then check your pulse — you may not have one.

9. Generous Bosom Part 4 By Conor Stechschulte (Breakdown Press) – The twists and turns finally all converge in this final installment of Stechschulte’s opus of mindfuckery. A perfect ending it’s not, but that doesn’t preclude it from being an eminently satisfying one. Oh, and hey — soon to be a major motion picture! But that’s another story for another time, and one that’s already more convoluted than the books it’s (partially, at any rate) based on.

8. Mycelium Wassonii By Brian Blomerth (Anthology Editions) – Comics’ modern master of psychedelia follows up his book on the early days of acid research with a book on — the early day’s of ‘shroom research? Hey, give Blomerth credit : he knows both what he likes and what he does really well. An educational, informative, and gorgeously-drawn “trip” well worth taking.

7. Lure By Lane Milburn (Fantagraphics) – An ambitious science fiction epic that never loses sight of its humanity, Milburn’s exploration of life on Earth and its fictitious “twin” planet may be set in the future but is still as timely as they come, offering as it does cogent commentary on such things as the so-called “gig economy,” the exploitation of the natural world, Amazonian hyper-capitalism, colonialism, and the billionaire space race. One of those rare comics that not only lives up to, but exceeds, all the “buzz” surrounding it.

6. Super! Magic Forest By Ansis Purins (Revival House) – A “kids’ comic” for the kid in all of us, Purins’ vividly imaginative world leaps off the page and into your heart with the kind of unforced charm that simply can’t be faked. All that wonder and mystery and significance you left behind when you grew up? It’s all right here, waiting to welcome you back.

5. Death Plays A Mean Harmonica By Steve Lafler (Cat Head Comics) – American ex-pats decamp to Oaxaca to live the good life, only to find themselves surrounded by vampires, intelligent fungi, and yes, even Death him/itself — but hey, maybe it’s still the good life after all! Blending the personal with the outrageous with the outrageously funny as only he can, Lafler has created one of the finest works of his storied career.

4. Nod Away Vol. 2 By Joshua W. Cotter (Fantagraphics) – The second “chapter” in Cotter’s science fiction masterpiece-in-progress abruptly shifts focus yet still manages to build on all that’s come before. Written and drawn with more passionate intensity per page than perhaps anything else out there, this is the embodiment of a true magnum opus — and while I can’t claim to have the first guess as to where it’s all headed, I do know that I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Neither should you.

3. Chartwell Manor By Glenn Head (Fantagraphics) – Powerful, poignant, and painful, Head’s memoir of abuse at the hands of a schoolmaster is just as much about the parental denial that allowed it to continue and the lasting psychological scars that never really heal as it is about the perpetrator, and as a result this stands as one of the most thorough-going examinations of survival in the history of the medium. When they talk about “comics that will be discussed and debated for years to come,” this is what they mean.

2. From Granada To Cordoba By Pier Dola (Fantagraphics Underground) – The full-length debut of a masterful new voice, Dola’s existential downward spiral balances humanism with nihilism (don’t even ask me how that works), visual literacy with the aesthetics and approach of a true “outsider.” In a sane and just world, this would be the year’s most influential comic. Here’s to hoping — just don’t expect to find much hope in the pages of the book itself, okay?

1. The Domesticated Afterlife By Scott Finch (Antenna) – A decade in the making, Finch’s breathtakingly unique book is a seamless marriage of the literary and the visual in service of telling a multi-faceted but absolutely singular story with an equally singular worldview. Not exactly an anarchist anti-domestication text per se, although such sentiments surely inform it, I would argue that it’s more an emotive exploration of what is lost when the conscious and unconscious are bifurcated and dreaming itself is colonized by pedestrian rationality. Featuring a complex and enthralling set of contrasting symbols and mythologies, this is no mere exercise in “world-building,” but rather an act of reality creation that stands as a testament to the transformational power of imagination.

And that, my friends, is a wrap — not only on these lists, but on Four Color Apocalypse for the year 2021. I’ll be back in early January (that’s next week, so it’s not like I’m taking some long “break” or anything) with the first reviews of the new year, but until then, if you want more, there’s always my Patreon, which I update three times per week and can be found by going over to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Contemporary Collections

We’re getting near the finish line here, I promise. Two lists to go, including this one, TOP TEN CONTEMPORARY COLLECTIONS. This is another fairly broad category, with ALL comics published from the year 2000 to the present day eligible, as long as they are not original, stand-alone graphic novels. So basically we’re talking about any trade paperbacks that are a collection of single issues; any translated works such as Eurocomics, manga, etc.; any anthologies; any print collections of webcomics; or any collections of strips or assorted odds and ends, etc., as long as fit my admittedly absurd 21-year definition of “contemporary.” And with that out of the way, we’ll jump right in :

10. Go F❤ck Myself : The F❤ckpendium By Mike Freiheit (Kilgore Books) – Sprawling, ambitious, heartbreaking, and hilarious, Freiheit’s cartoon “thesis statement” on human history — and humanity’s future — is as personal as it is universal. The kind of book that makes you feel glad to be alive — except when it doesn’t — and a legit tour-de-force work.

9. My Begging Chart By Keiler Roberts (Drawn+Quarterly) – A year just doesn’t feel complete without a glimpse into the lives of Roberts and her family, and this is one of her very best books to date. One day we’re going to look back at these and recognize them as perhaps the pre-eminent example of long-form memoir in the medium’s history.

8. Tono Monogatari By Shigeru Mizuki, Translated By Zack Davisson (Drawn+Quarterly) – A poignant and lavishly illustrated adaptation of Japan’s most timeless collection of “fairly tales,” done by a master working at the height of his powers. Many of the pages in this will quite literally take your breath away, as will the scope and grandeur of the project itself.

7. Fungirl By Elizabeth Pich (Silver Sprocket) – The funniest “hot mess” in comics finally gets her due in a comprehensive collection of hijinks and mayhem sure to make you laugh hard and then feel appropriately guilty for having done so. Pich has her finger on the pulse of something truly unique here that straddles a fine line between blissful ignorance and willful amorality. Consequences — unintended or otherwise — have never been this much fun.

6.Post York By James Romberger (Dark Horse/Berger Books) – A refreshingly human-scale take on post-apocalyptic survival stories, Romberger’s work is greatly fleshed out and expanded upon in this new definitive edition that finally gives the material the presentation it’s always deserved. A strong contender for the best-drawn comic you’ll lay eyes on all year, this is a truly timeless tale that both honors and transcends its genre-specific origins.

5.Night Bus By Zuo Ma, Translated By Orion Martin (Drawn+Quarterly) – A wide-screen, epic modern-day fable by one of the brightest lights of the Chinese cartooning underground, don’t let the vaguely “YA” trappings of this one fool you for an instant : this is visionary, hallucinatory, reality-bending stuff. As immersive as visual storytelling gets, yet somehow speaking in a language all its own, this is a book that demands you meet it on its own terms and rewards you for doing so with a journey unlike anything you’ve ever seen or read.

4. Are Comic Books Real? By Alex Nall (Kilgore Books) – Nobody in comics better understands — or more respects — children than arts educator Nall, who communicates both the simple truth and impenetrable mystery of their worldview with grace, humor, and heart. This collection marks the end of the road for his Teaching Comics strips, and trust me when I say you’ll miss them well before you’ve even finished reading them.

3. Aerosol Plus By C.F. (Mania) – This slim collection of comics by the former Fort Thunder mainstay showcases the work of an artist who is forever pushing the boundaries of his own creativity forward and refusing to let what comics have been determine what they will be. Visually, conceptually, tonally, and formally transformational work by someone for whom the term auteur is almost too confining and restrictive.

2. Heart Shaped Tears By Abby Jame (Silver Sprocket) – With this collection, Jame makes a strong case for being the cartooning voice of her generation, communicating as she does the inner lives of fundamentally-unimpressed young women and teens with all the nonchalance and cynicism of a true “insider.” Today’s youth have been there and done that before they’ve even been anywhere or done anything, it seems — but could it be that they come off as smarter than us old-timers because they actually are? Forget crap like Euphoria — this is the real deal. And besides, TV is such old news.

1. Dog Biscuits By Alex Graham (Self-Published Via Lulu) – The quintessential webcomic of 2020 is the quintessential print comic of 2021, as Graham’s “pandemic epic” actually reads even stronger in collected form than it did in daily single-page doses. The lockdown may be over — for now, at any rate — but this story nevertheless captures both where and who we are better than any other work in any medium. Probably a shoe-in to be on just about every critic’s “best comics of the decade” list come 2030 — assuming our species makes it that long.

We’ll wrap things up tomorrow with the TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS list, but until then I’m non-contractually obligated to remind you that all of these columns/round-ups are “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