Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Collected Editions (Vintage)

Another day, another year-end “top ten” list. This time out is the year’s best vintage collected editions, in this case “vintage” meaning that the books in question collect works originally published prior to the year 2000. One of these years I suppose I should push that “cut-off date” up a bit, but for now, we’ll play it as it lays. And so, without further ado —

10. Alay-Oop By William Gropper (New York Review Comics) – Arguably the first graphic novel ever published, Gropper’s 1930 wordless morality play/love triangle drama is a tour de force of fluid visual storytelling, and the fact that it’s now available for contemporary audiences to re-discover is nothing short of a miracle.

9. That Miyoko Asagaya Feeling By Shinichi Abe (Black Hook Press) – A trailblazer in the field of autobio Manga, Abe’s early-1970s GARO strips are a moving testament to the power of inspiration and obsession, an exploration of the fine line between the two, and a fascinating historical record of a Tokyo Bohemian subculture that by and large no longer exists.

8. Ink & Anguish : A Jay Lynch Anthology By Jay Lynch With Ed Piskor And Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics) – An exhaustive collection of the late, great underground legend’s works that’s as poignant as it is funny, sure — but also eerily prescient in many respects. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and that’s a damn shame.

7. Return To Romance : The Strange Loves Stories Of Ogden Whitney Edited By Dan Nadel And Frank Santoro (New York Review Comics) – Love is a battlefield, sure, but in Whitney’s 1950s romance comics that battlefield is psychological, with women constantly battling their dueling inclinations toward freedom and domesticity, with the former leading to heartbreak, the latter to happiness. Exploding every one of the genre’s sexist tropes by taking them to their logical extremes, this is visionary stuff cleverly disguised as status quo reinforcement.

6. Tale Of The Beast By Tadao Tsuge (Black Hook Press) – The first English-language edition of Tsuge’s 1987 hard-boiled Manga noir is a visceral revelation that eschews typical “whodunnit?” structuring by showing us the guilty culprit from the outset — yet it never fails to surprise at every turn. A visual and narrative marvel that oozes darkness and menace from every panel.

5. In The Wilderness By Casanova Frankenstein (Fantagraphics Underground) – Before creating his stand-in (okay, sometime stand-in) character of Tad Martin, Frankenstein was churning out these late-1980s/early-1990s autobio strips that are imbued with such direct immediacy that the act of committing them to paper feels and reads more like an exorcism than anything else. DIY comics before the term was known, these stories breathe a kind of fire that time and distance can’t diminish.

4. Absolute Swamp Thing By Alan Moore Volume One By Alan Moore, Stephen R. Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, Shawn McManus, And Dan Day (DC/Vertigo) – This long-awaited deluxe presentation of one of the transformative works in the history of the medium is every bit as gorgeous as anyone could hope for, but I really wish DC (and some other publishers, to be fair) would get over this whole urge to re-color everything. Granted, if you’re gonna go the computer coloring route, Steve Oliff is the best there is, was, or will ever be — but rich and textured as his work here is, it still buries a lot of the detail in the inks that showed through in Tatjana Wood’s original hand-done colors, and there was absolutely no compelling reason to cast aside her terrific work, which frankly would really shine in this slick, oversized format. That being said — this is still a “must-own” book, and re-visiting this material never fails to yield new surprises and deepen one’s appreciation for its revolutionary approach to mainstream horror comics.

3. Walt And Skeezix : 1933 – 1934 By Frank King (Drawn+Quarterly) – Every volume in this wonderfully-restored chronological reprinting of Gasoline Alley has been sublime, but for my money this eighth installment in the series represents the period when King was absolutely firing on all cylinders. I think a lot of people probably owed their very survival during the Great Depression to this charmingly transcendent comic.

2. Doll By Guy Colwell (Fantagraphics Underground) – One of the overlooked gems in the history of the medium and arguably one of the last true undergrounds, Colwell’s late-1980s series remains perhaps the most smart and sensitive “sex comic” ever produced on this side of the Atlantic, his story not only accurately predicting the arrival of the “Real Doll” (Google it if you must), but addressing issues ranging from toxic masculinity to misogyny to female objectification and dehumanization at a time when many of his peers were still trading in all that crap for cheap laughs. Having this collected between two covers, with its gorgeous art reproduced at a generous size, is cause for genuine celebration.

1. DC Universe : The Bronze Age Omnibus By Jack Kirby (DC) – I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the “omnibus” format, generally finding it to be unwieldy in the extreme, but come on — who are we kidding? When you’ve got all of Kirby’s The DemonThe Losers, and OMAC collected together in one book, plus all kinds of one-offs and collaborations ranging from Dingbats Of Danger Street to Super Powers ? This one’s gonna win the top spot even if the damn thing weighs as much as a small child.

Next up we’ll do the year’s top ten contemporary collections, but until then please do your humble list-maker a favor and consider supporting my ongoing work by subscribing to 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. Check it out by directing your kind attention to





Get In The Loop On “Alay-Oop”

Long before there was Jerry Springer, there was William Gropper.

Which isn’t, believe it or not, to say that the two men have much of anything in common : Gropper was a masterfully skilled cartoonist and fine artist, Springer a cheap carnival barker who profited on the exploitation of his guests’ misery, but they both milked the notion of the so-called “love triangle” for all it’s worth — it just so happens that the premise is worth a whole lot more in the hands of a sympathetic and smart illustrator than it is a sleazy talk show host.

I’m guessing that this assertion requires little by way of concrete evidence, but just in case, New York Review Comics has recently issued a handsome hardcover edition of Gropper’s largely-forgotten 1930 sequential story Alay-Oop, a book that may just be able to stake a legitimate claim to being the first so-called “graphic novel.” And to call it well ahead of its time is to sell it far too short.

Gropper would eventually become just as well-known for his leftist political activism as he was for his sublime art, given that he ended up being the very first artist hauled before a fascist HUAC hearing, but in these pages he lays bare the humanity that no doubt informed his strong conscience, relating the story of two circus acrobats who well and truly seem to have it all until a slick “Mr. Moneybags” type comes between them and inadvertently triggers a moving and literate morality play that contains not a single word — largely because Gropper’s cartooning is so expressive that it has no need of any language apart from the visual.

Still, it only stands to reason that when you’re shelling out 25 bucks for a book, you want to do some reading as well as keeping your optic nerves busy with looking, so it’s very fortunate indeed that James Sturm is on hand to provide a suitably concise, but in no way “mailed-in,” introduction that addresses the various issues raised by the comic it refers to, as well as significant historical details within its author’s own biography. I’m hit or miss when it comes to Sturm’s comics and his scholarly work, but here he hits all the right notes and sets the table for the experience readers can look forward to.

And my oh my what an experience that is ! Constructed by means of single-page “splash” images juxtaposed with blank white pages and occasionally interspersed with eye-catching and enticing double-page spreads, there is an organic fluidity to this, Gropper’s only book-length work, that demonstrates such an intuitive understanding of the then-nascent medium that only someone feeling as well as thinking their way through an art form that was still largely unexplored in terms of its potentialities could possibly hope to achieve. Comics were wide open at the time Gropper put pencil, pen, and brush to paper, and incredibly — dare I even say miraculously — he managed to both expand and define both what they were and, crucially, what they could do simultaneously. If it’s been far too long since you came across a comic where it seemed like anything was possible on any page, you could do a lot worse than going back to earliest days of the form and finding waiting for you there this absolutely extraordinary work, which feels as fresh, new, and exciting now as it did when first published. As always, the key to the future is waiting to be re-discovered in the past.


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