“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

Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Ongoing Series

With my top ten single issues of 2019 in the rear view mirror, let’s move on to the top ten ongoing series. Any comic that saw two or more issues released in the past calendar year is eligible in this category and so, as you’d no doubt expect, the mainstream is represented much more on this list than it was in the last, given that most of their titles are still, theoretically, on a regular production schedule. There are a couple of elephants in the room that I’ll address at the very end, but let’s worry about that after you’ve read the “countdown,” shall we?

10. Wasted Space By Michael Moreci And Hayden Sherman (Vault Comics) – The first of two ensemble cast sci-fi series where every member of said ensemble is an asshole to make the “best of” cut this year, Moreci’s scripts for this book are heavy on the humor and class-conscious political messaging, while Sherman, who’s one of the busiest artists around these days, seems to bring an extra level inspiration and creativity to this title. Fun and smart in equal measure.

9. Go-Bots By Tom Scioli (IDW) – Perhaps the most surprising entry on the list simply because no one expected that a good comic about some third-rate Transformers knock-offs was even possible, but leave it to the great Scioli to make these robots seem more human than — well, humans, while cramming more ideas and visual “hooks” into any given page than most cartoonists can manage in an entire issue. IDW is onto something with this whole “give an indie guy a crack at a licensed property” idea, as we shall see as things go on.

8. All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape By Josh Bayer, Josh Simmons, Trevor Von Eeden, et. al. (Floating World Comics) – After an up-and-down first “season,” the aesthetic and thematic goals of the brothers Bayer (the other being Samuel)  are coming into pretty sharp focus in this late-Bronze Age homage. Some of that might be down to the addition of  Simmons as co-writer, and some of it is certainly down to the monumentally-underappreciated Von Eeden coming aboard as main artist and proving he certainly hasn’t lost a step, but whatever the case may be, this amalgamation of the over-and undergrounds is firing on all cylinders now.

7. Clue : Candlestick By Dash Shaw (IDW) – I told you we’d be getting back to IDW licensed books, and what a beauty this one was : the endlessly-inventive Shaw littered each of the three issues of this mini with clever puzzles and crafted one of the more compelling characters in comics this year with his iteration of Miss Scarlet. Innovative, engrossing, and consistently surprising, we’re talking about a legit gem here.

6. Outer Darkness By John Layman And Afu Chan (Image/Skybound) – Our second ensemble-cast-of-assholes science fiction series serves up at least one “pinch me, did I really just read that?” moment in each issue, as Layman crafts an epic that’s equal parts William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, while Chan delivers the visually-arresting goods in a style that demonstrates some strong anime influence yet remains utterly unique. You may not like anyone in this book, but you’ll love the book itself.

5. The Immortal Hulk By Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, et. al. (Marvel) – The first time a Marvel book has made my year-end list, but anyone who doubts my judgment clearly hasn’t been reading this comic. Ewing is doing for the Hulk what Alan Moore did for Swamp Thing, and Bennett blends Bernie Wrightson and Kelly Jones with early-era Image and jaw-dropping character designs, ably abetted by Jose’s faithful, non-flashy inks . The best super-hero book in a decade or more.

4. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen : The Tempest By Alan Moore And Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf/Knockabout) – Every bit as self-indulgent and self-congratulatory as its detractors claim, this extended “farewell tour” by Moore and O’Neill is nevertheless a heartfelt love letter to the characters and the medium they’re leaving behind as well as (crucially) the creators who came before them, who gave voice to the dreams and imaginings of countless generations — and were, of course, unconscionably ripped off for their troubles. One of the funniest and angriest comics of the year, and prima facie evidence that the comics landscape will be a far poorer place with these two, dare I say it, extraordinary gentlemen no longer part of it.

3. Love And Rockets By Jaime And Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Los Bros. have been reaching new plateaus since switching back to their original magazine format with this, the fourth “volume” of their justly-legendary series, and while I hate to pick favorites, Jamie’s Maggie and Hopey stories are perhaps the best they have ever been right now. Which doesn’t mean Beto isn’t on a real creative “high” right now himself — he surely is. So let’s just admit what we all know : as readers of this tile, we’re not just spoiled — we’re spoiled to an embarrassing degree.

2. This Never Happened By Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Probably the most divisive title on this list, but also the bravest. Anyone who mines the worst period of their life for a creative “battery charge” is entering into combustible territory, and while Graham doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to her portrayal of other folks, her sharpest barbs are aimed at herself and the crucial part she played in her own personal downward spiral. And the only thing bolder than the script is the art, which is Graham’s most emotive and self-assured to date. I won’t kid you, after reading the first issue I was a little worried if the cartoonist was mentally and emotionally okay, but after two installments it really hit me : the work itself is proof that she emerged from her crisis not just relatively intact, but flat-out inspired.

1. From Hell : Master Edition By Alan Moore And Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf/Knockabout) – Anyone who has a problem with me choosing a reprint series as the year’s best ongoing, have at it — because while you can criticize me all you want, the work in question is pretty well above reproach. I was as skeptical as anyone else that adding color to the proceedings would massively detract from the look and flavor of Moore and Campbell’s grimy (and no doubt accurate) interpretation of the Victorian era, but with the artist himself in charge of the palette, the results have ranged from “unobtrusive” to “amazing,” and the absurd levels of income inequality in today’s world, as well as the return of leaders who seem to believe they come from the “divine right of kings” school of “thought,” make this conspiratorial examination of the Jack The Ripper murders more relevant than ever. Even if it’s all bullshit, it’s still true.

And now for those elephants in the room —

Astute readers may have noticed that two perennial favorites didn’t make the cut this year, those being Jeff Lemire and Dean Haspiel’s Black Hammer and Eric Reynolds’ avant-garde anthology series Now. The reason for that is simple : while Black Hammer : Age Of Doom ended in very satisfactory fashion, the issue leading up to it felt hopelessly padded and derivative, and while Now rebounded nicely with its seventh and most recent issue, volumes five and six didn’t come close to meeting the standard set by the title early on. I’d be shocked if that comic in particular didn’t find its was back onto the list next year, but we don’t deal in speculation around these parts. You wanna make the cut in any given 12-month period, you gotta earn it.

Next — the top ten vintage collections of 2019. See you for that in a couple of days! In the meantime, if you’d like to support my ongoing work, please consider 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. Do a jobbing freelancer a favor and check it out at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse


If “This Never Happened,” Then Why All The Fuss?

If you’re a comics critic, the smart money is on not touching Alex Graham’s new self-published serialized “ongoing,” This Never Happened. Two issues in, it’s caused — and continues to cause — anything from ripples to seismic waves within the small-press community, depending on who you are and how close to Seattle you live.

I get it — I mean, shit, it’s a small scene, and some easily-recognizable figures within it are getting torched. Not with anything like the vengeful glee of Simon Hanselmann’s Truth Zone, but then, the folks on the receiving end of his barbs generally aren’t people he interacts with on a personal level frequently, much less former romantic partners. There’s a degree of distance between author and subject there, while Graham is offering no such safety. She’s putting you right inside her head, showing her lived experience, and — not to sound too cliched — “speaking her truth.”

Now, how much is the truth may (or may not) be an open question, and with the title itself Graham seems to be inviting such speculation, but —- ahh, fuck it, if I’m gonna put one foot in the minefield here, I may as well go for both. Good art is never safe. It never pulls its punches. And while all that’s easy to say, those words are empty unless and until we can say them, and have them be just as true, when the art in question casts people that we know, respect, and like in an unflattering light.

And I want to say, for the record, that the people Graham is “laying into” here are, in fact, people I know, respect, and like. I don’t want to trash any friendships with this review. But I also happen to think that, as self-performed exorcisms of personal demons go, This Never Happened is, at least so far, an awfully compelling one.

Graham’s protagonist in these comics is about as obvious an authorial stand-in as you’re likely to find, a comic rather than someone who makes comics being about the only distinction between herself and “her,” and if other people are concerned about how their own dopplegangers are going to come off in these pages they have every right to be, at least if the artist’s portrayal of her own damn self is anything to go by : neurotic in the extreme, barely clinging to the economic and societal margins, ostracized from her social milieu essentially by choice, painfully awkward, acutely depressed, and with a rather pronounced streak of body dysmorphia, the picture painted is of an individual with little to live for and, consequently, zero fucks left to give — for others, yes, but also for herself and her own well-being. Your heart  could easily break for her even as you realize so much of the damage she’s done is entirely self-inflicted, and yet

There’s no particular begging for sympathy going on here, at least as far as I can tell. If that were the case, then Graham would be portraying herself as a victim, and she pretty clearly is doing no such thing. Hell, the “rough draft” copy of issue one that I got even includes a postscript informing the handful of people who received it that she doesn’t want anyone to check in on her to make sure she’s okay because the comic makes it plain as day how she is doing and she has no particular burning desire to talk about it beyond what she’s put in there, thank you very much.

So — fair enough. Maybe it’s just down to the fact that I’m a longtime Ditko fan, but the idea of letting an artist’s work speak for itself and leaving it at that is old hat to me, and besides — there’s not much point offering help to someone who isn’t asking for it. Hell, she presents herself as being abrasive (intentionally and otherwise) so consistently throughout these two comics that she’s basically daring you to keep liking her : interjecting yourself into conversations you have no place in, cracking stupid, poorly-timed jokes, proselytizing for extreme positions such as mandatory sterilization for the stupid (and anyone else you don’t like), making consistently poor decisions — these aren’t exactly going to endear you to a reader no matter how much of a masochist they are.

Okay, sure, autobio comics have been fertile ground for the expression of extreme self-loathing since the days of Crumb, but even still this is a pretty relentless example of it, and comes to us entirely absent any sort of plea for understanding, much less a desire to cast the author’s flaws in even a nominally “endearing” light. There’s no “take it or leave it, this is who I am” happening here — more like “this is who I am, now just leave it.” In that respect then, yeah — this is one agonizingly difficult comic to read. Even so —

Let’s just give the benefit of the doubt and assume this negative self- presentation is entirely accurate. Would that mean that Graham deserves to be treated like shit? Because her depiction of a one-time paramour’s very shitty treatment of her is causing a lot of distress within the comics community, and in fairness is tinging this work with something of a “frontier justice” vibe about it. I’m concerned about how fair this may or may not be to the party in question, absolutely — and I’m even less comfortable with dragging in people who were only peripheral to their failed relationship — but I think we’re missing the forest for the trees a bit when we assume that score-settling is this comic’s raison d’etre. It’s definitely of a piece with the tone of the work as a whole, but it seems like provocation and confrontationalism are actually, dare I say it, getting the job done here as intended, and that even if you think Graham’s portrayal of the ugly side of this romance is complete one-sided bullshit, it still raises a very important question, namely : who gets their “Me Too Moment,” and who gets written off as a crazy, vengeful ex with an axe to grind?

If you’re uncomfortable with that query, then let’s double down by asking : who is it that makes this distinction between “legit abuse” and “sour grapes”? What criteria go into it? How is this consensus decision arrived at? And hey, while we’re at it — once “everyone” has agreed on something, what if they’re wrong?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it’s beyond the purview of this review to even tackle them in any appreciable way, but let’s face it — any comic that can get a reader to start considering them is doing something powerful and important. I wish people weren’t getting hurt along the way, no doubt about it — but equally, if the things in This Never Happened did, in fact, happen, then I wish Graham hadn’t gotten hurt so badly that making this comic seemed like the only method for addressing her pain. Which brings up another point, that being —

Is it? Would some other outlet be healthier? In issue one she has an entirely unproductive session with a therapist who turns out to be a figment of her imagination, and from that point on the idea that there’s no way out from any of this hangs over everything in true Sword of Damocles fashion. Graham’s art style has evolved to fit the overall tone of the work — thicker lines, darker shading, depressive body language, exaggerated “high” and “low” facial expressions depending on which manic state her ostensible “protagonist” is in — even visually, then, the idea that the shadows have arrived and are here to stay seems nearly inescapable. There’s a lot of “gallows humor” in both installments of the series, it’s true, but it’s not like it alleviates the proceedings in the least, it just paints the tragic absurdity of it all in stark relief. I’ve been getting a lot of laughs out of this comic, I admit — Graham has always been, and remains, a very funny cartoonist — but I feel suitably guilty pretty quickly after every chuckle, and I strongly suspect that may be the point. Yet I don’t know if that means this is a legitimately therapeutic exercise, or if I just need to see a therapist myself. Maybe both?

Still, when I look at this work in its admittedly partial totality (yeah, I know, that makes no fucking sense), I think I may see a bit of hope even if Graham herself doesn’t : after all, when you let go — when you completely untether yourself from what you think readers want, from what you damn well know your friends want, and yes, even from what you can pretty well figure critics will judge you on, you’re completely free. When you arrive at rock bottom, there really is nowhere to go but up. This Never Happened is doing damage, perhaps to its own author most of all, but its raw emotional honesty (we’ll leave its factual honesty as a matter for each reader to decide for themselves), stark self-awareness, and absolute lack of anything resembling pretense marks it as being something as utterly unique as it is problematic — a no-holds-barred piece of reportage from the very epicenter of a downward spiral as it’s happening. Alex Graham may owe some apologies after it’s over — and it’s possible some may be owed to her, as well —- but this bears all the hallmarks of a necessary act of creation, and letting the chips fall where they may and cleaning things up after the dust settles come part and parcel with such things.

Next up : let’s all try being kind to each other for a change. And to ourselves.


This Never Happened numbers one and two are tough items to come by so far, but I think Austin English will have them up for sale on his Domino Books distro site soon, so keep an eye out for it at http://dominobooks.org/

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 ongoing work, so please give it a look at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse



Guest Essay : Alex Graham On Art As A Vehicle For Reality Creation

Long-time readers of this site will know that Alex Graham is an artist whose work I’ve always been proud not just to review, but to active champion. The auteur responsible for Cosmic BE-ING is consistently one of the most fascinating voices in the medium, and is an accomplished painter, to boot. I’m therefore very pleased to present her essay on “Art As A Vehicle For Reality Creation,” which offers tremendous insight not only on her process, but the overall aims of her entire artistic project. Take it away, Alex!

Art as a Vehicle for Reality Creation – 15 Years of Painting

Channeled by Alex Graham, written September 11 2019.

“Immolation,” October 2015

 I could have titled this essay sensationally –as, “Art & Witchcraft.” And the meat of the message would remain unchanged.

 In these rigid times, playful thinking is discouraged in theory discourse– and if it were to emerge, the fun of it is choked out by citations — citations of ideas that already exist, filtered through generations of scrutiny to the point of sterility. That is why this essay is unprocessed — not filtered through the conceited lens of human judgment — derived only from the mind of the author, acting momentarily as an antenna for the Divine Life Force. An unpopular style of theorizing about the human experience that some may find incorrect, & some may find dangerous, but to which practiced artists will undoubtedly relate, and which curious onlookers might find amusing and enlightening.

Alex Graham, age 22, with “Automobuito,” 2010.

 For the purpose of this essay I will be referencing my own experiences in the art of painting, as I have been fully immersed in the art form for 15 years, though these theories apply to all acts of creativity.

Reality Projection – Conscious and Unconscious

 The body emits waves of electricity, commonly known as vibrations. These vibrations have a direct effect on your immediate environment, but also continue out into space until they reach the end of the galaxy. As such, they contribute to a constant, ever-changing magnetic force that moves in a firelike pattern around the planet Earth.

 Zooming back in on the Individual, these vibrations can carry a conscious, or an unconscious force of will, that can move destructively outward (as destruction is a creative force). As these vibrations have an effect on the material world, they can summon situations, events, objects, and other beings. This is referred to as magnetism.

Stone People

 One must be aware of this life force before they are able to acknowledge it, communicate with it, or have any awareness of its effect on the course of one’s life.

 Many walk among us who, for one reason or another, refuse to acknowledge the intrinsic life force within and without each living being, and its effect on their life.

 These types of beings may act in learned patterns, have a difficult time deviating from a set path or tradition, behave without conscience, have expressionless faces and speak in monotone, try to exert control other peoples’ lives, and make calculated mathematical choices devoid of artistry or imagination. They may be whipped around by circumstance and easily manipulated by those who can harness the life source with selfish intentions

 These ‘Stone People’ are no less capable of connecting to this divine lifesource, but their inability to acknowledge it leaves them more vulnerable to its chaotic whims.

 Yes, the life force is chaotic, and cannot be contained. It is not an instrument for the individual to use — rather, it will ‘play’ the Individual as an instrument — a collaboration flesh and spirit.

 Effective art is the kind that reaches out and continues to ‘play’ the emotions of the viewer, as an instrument of sensations and emotions.

The Value of Art, by a Different Measure

 When one learns to acknowledge this life force, they can practice and measure oneself as an antenna, with radio reception that waxes and wanes depending on a variety of factors presented by the physical form. In my experience, the ability to connect to this life force depends on my level of health and deep connection to the molecular aspects of my “animal vehicle” or “body”. It also depends, strangely enough, on ‘endearing myself’ to this life force, with quiet acts of artistry, kindness, good will, and strength. The experiences of falling in love, connecting strongly with a piece of artwork, or connecting strongly with another being also create an immediate, strong magnetic pull connected with this divine lifesource.

 When I am at the height of connection to this life force, combined with the intention of my presence of mind, I find that I can turn my ego completely off, and my body becomes an instrument through which the divine life force will ‘play’. “I” – my “id” – walks to the back of my brain and takes a seat, as an observer. And the divine life force becomes the driver of my animal vehicle.

 In this state, my lines are effortless, and image concepts are plucked down from the collective conscience (ever seen multiple artists conceive similar themes at the same time? Sometimes mistaken for plagiarism, these artists were all connected to the Divine Life Source at the same moment in time.) Oftentimes, at the height of this state, I will finish one or several paintings at a time, sometimes in one session.

 When I am in a low vibrational state, attempting to create can feel like drudgery — because I am relying almost completely on my mortal vehicle to complete tasks that are measured against acts of divinity.

 Even a layman unaware of the metaphysical aspects of art will unconsciously feel the emptiness and meaninglessness and superficiality in a piece of artwork derived purely from flesh and bone, and filtered through the lens of the ego, until it is sterilized of all life.

 The value of art can be measured by the volume of spirit that exists within its elements, and whether or not it is ‘alive’. But, who can know? And how is it measured? In this way the value of art remains subjective.

Living Art
“The Opening Act,” 2019

 Why do we cry when great artifacts are destroyed? When an artwork is heavily affected by the ‘hand’ of the Divine Life Force, like all other living things it is ‘born’ into the material world and deposited into a vehicle, in the same way that other beings are ‘born’. Like all other living things it contains a singular self, and emits an energy. Great artworks can emit vibrations and magnetism, just like other living beings.

 Like the humble Human Being, this invisible life force simply wants to be acknowledged.

Reality Creation Through Art

 After many years of practice and experience, an artist will begin to see the patterns of this life force emerging in their work — but also in serendipitous life events. For example, if one is channeling the grand life force of the universe into a painting of togetherness, a situation may arise in which the message of the painting is subsequently ‘lived’ by the artist.

 On December 22nd, 2015, I committed my second-to-last work of art of the year – a spontaneous live portrait (marker on paper) of my friend, A. — a regular at the Jazz bar where I was a waitress. I walked up to him, asked if I could draw his portrait, and he posed for me at the bar. (Unfortunately I did not photograph this portrait.)

 Days after that, on December 29th, 2015, I painted a live portrait of my cat, Leche, who kindly, lovingly and intentionally posed for me for 30 minutes or more.

 These portraits were the last two acts of creativity I had committed in the year of 2015.

 Almost a year later, in early December of 2016, both of these beings passed away unexpectedly (to my knowledge), of natural causes — their dates of death were separated by the same number of days that had occurred between the portraits, but in the reverse order that they were painted. Leche died on December 1, 2016, and A. died on December 7, 2016.

 Yes, they are only anecdotes, coincidences from the life of one artist. But I doubt very much, that I am the only practicing artist who has experienced these serendipitous, tangible, mystical effects of creation.

 Another mysterious act of reality creation is the story behind my two Serpent paintings, unwittingly conceived right in the same moment that my neighbor was being murdered 20 yards away from where I sat. To read this story in full, click here.

 In these instances of creative intention affecting reality, I can only hope that my creative acts had not somehow caused or contributed to these tragic events, but rather foretold, or were transmitted from the energies of my subjects. It stands that I will never truly know the answer.

Signed, Alex Graham
Seattle, Washington

Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Contemporary Collections

Once more into the breach — this time out, we take a look at my personal favorite contemporary collected editions of 2018, with “contemporary collected editions” specifically referring to books presenting work that was published somewhere else first, either as single issues, mini-comics, even just strips in various anthologies. The “contemporary” part of the equation means that these volumes need to present material that was published after the year 2000, as anything prior to that will fall into the “vintage collected editions” list that we’ll do in the next day or two. Final ground rule : English-language translations of Eurocomics and Manga are also eligible in this category (with the same chronological guidelines in play), since they  also, ya know, saw print somewhere else first. Let’s get right to it, then:

10. Compulsive Comics By Eric Haven (Fantagraphics) – Haven’s surreal strips appear far too infrequently, so getting two collections of them two years in a row like we have is genuine cause for celebration. Like Fletcher Hanks on bad acid with plenty of deadpan humor and gorgeous linework and color, the worlds Haven creates are what bad dreams would look and feel like — if they were fun. Plus, he accidentally kills a bunch of famous cartoonists in this one.

9. From Lone Mountain By John Porcellino (Drawn+Quarterly) – We all know that Porcellino’s King-Cat Comics is one the true treasures of this beleaguered medium we love, but what’s less well-known is what an absolute roll this series was on in the early-to-mid 2000s. This superb collection presents the very best of those years, when Porcellino was really getting a firm grip on the wistful, evocative, “tone poem” character that the series maintains to this day. Simply beautiful.

8. Red Winter By Anneli Furmark (Drawn+Quarterly) – One of the most heartfelt and stirring love stories to grace the comics world in some time, every forlorn glance and stolen moment these two doomed paramours share is a stake through the heart, lushly rendered against a backdrop of political intrigue and familial drama. Furmark’s strips are a national institution in Sweden — here’s your chance to see why.

7. Dumb By Georgia Webber (Fantagraphics) – The most harrowing and heartfelt autobio work of this year, Webber’s chronicle of her extended period without the use of her voice, originally self-published as a series on minis, is a privileged look at the challenges and daily practical demands of navigating through a hitherto-unforeseen health crisis. A very silent scream, indeed.

6. Somnabulance By Fiona Smyth (Koyama Press) – Long overdue, this massive retrospective of the work of one of Canada’s pioneering feminist cartoonists skirts our rules a bit by presenting material from both the previous century and this one (we’ll be breaking that again before this is over, fair warning), but who’s complaining? This is true auteur material, showcasing a world all its own, as foreign as it is immediately recognizable, inhabiting a space somewhere between dreams and reality. No one does it like Smyth, and no one else ever will.

5. Book Of Daze By E. A. Bethea (Domino Books) – By contrast, Bethea’s work has a way of making the actual, waking world we all know feel dreamlike, ethereal, and mysterious — even its dingiest corners. A slimmer collection than the others on this list (and the only one released as a magazine rather than a book), what this comic lacks in terms of physical heft it more than compensates for in the creation of a hermetically-sealed reality all its own.

4. The Song Of Aglaia By Anne Simon – French cartoonist Simon has long been admired “across the pond” for her detailed cross-hatching, inimitable facial expressions, and imaginative character designs, and as an “intro volume” for American readers, this feminist fairy tale is absolutely exemplary and painfully amusing. Lots of “Easter eggs” scatted throughout for Beatles fans as well in this amazingly charming, immersive volume.

3. Angloid By Alex Graham (Kilgore Books) – The mystical and mundane collide with results ranging from the heavy to the hilarious in Graham’s masterwork (to date, at any rate), culled from self-published minis and strips in her large format Cosmic BE-ING ‘zine. A sharp and wry take-down of both the art world and life on the economic margins, Graham will make you wish that you had some alien inter-dimensional helpers on your side just as her stand-in protagonist does, but you know what? You don’t need their assistance to recognize one of the most utterly unique and self-assured books of the year.

2. Providence : The Complete Slipcase Set By Alan Moore And Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – Superlatives aplenty have already been heaped upon Moore and Burrows’ Lovecraftian masterpiece, including from yours truly, so we needn’t revisit all that beyond saying that this isn’t simply one of the best horror comics ever made, but one of the best comics, period. Publisher Avatar has a reputation for producing some of their trade paperbacks and even hardcovers on the cheap, but this comprehensive collection, which also includes the prequel/sequel stories The Courtyard and Neonomicon, is very handsome indeed, and the inclusion of Dreadful Beauty : The Art Of Providence gives readers a fascinating look at Burrows’ criminally-underappreciated art in gorgeous black and white. An expensive set, to be sure, but more than worth every penny.

1. Berlin By Jason Lutes (Drawn+Quarterly) – Come on, what else was it going to be? Lutes’ sprawling, epic, highly personal tale of life in Weimar Berlin, over two decades in the making (told you we’d be skirting that “post-2000” rule again), stands as one of the high-water marks in the history of the medium, and this tremendous hardcover collection pulls out all the stops to present work this monumental in the format that it so richly deserves. A true masterpiece by any definition of the term.

And there we have it! Next up — Top 10 Vintage Collected Editions. I’m aiming to get that one up tomorrow, hope to have you along for the ride!



Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

With the advent (ha! Get it?) of December, the time has come, once again, for our annual look back at some of the finest comics the year had to offer. We’ll be skipping the usual offerings for the next week or two around here, including the Weekly Reading Round-Up column, since re-reading is your humble emcee’s top priority for the next little while. A run-down, then, of the six different categories I’ve broken things down into is in order, and please keep in mind that I’m deliberately eschewing calling any of these lists a “best-of” simply because I haven’t read everything that’s out there — and who could? Think of these, then, as lists of the ten best entries in each category that I’ve read. Or my own personal favorites. Or something. Anyway, “brackets” are as follows:

Top Ten Single Issues – Pretty self-explanatory, I should think : this list focuses on individual comic books and minis, either stand-alones or part of an ongoing series.

Top Ten Comics Series – This list is designed to spotlight comics that are produced on some sort of production schedule and honors those of consistently high quality. Open-ended, ongoing series and finite mini-series both are eligible, the only qualification is that each series has to have released at least three issues over the course of the past year, since if they’ve only put out two, either one of them would represent 50% of said comic’s total “output” and should, by rights, probably land in the “Top 10 Single Issues” category.

Top Ten Contemporary Collections – This list will focus on collected editions of material previously released either as single issues or in anthologies, etc. English-language translations of Eurocomics, Manga, and the like are also eligible in this category. I have a fairly generous definition of “contemporary,” and have set an admittedly quite arbitrary “cut-off date” of the year 2000, since anything that presents work from the previous century will fall into the category of —

Top Ten Vintage Collections – Same rules as above, just for pre-2000 stuff.

Top Ten Special Mentions – This is a new one I’ve never done before and is somewhat amorphous by definition, so by way of explanation I’ll just say it’s a list designed to highlight my favorite comics-adjacent releases of the year : work that’s done by cartoonists but doesn’t fit the traditional sequential-art format, or else publications that are about comics, but aren’t actually comics themselves.

Top Ten Graphic Novels – Last but certainly not least, this category has fairly strict limitations : every work in it is one which was designed from the outset to be presented in the “graphic novel” format, and cannot have been serialized anywhere else, either in print or online, since those sorts of things are already covered by the “Top Ten Contemporary Collections” designation. These are long-form, wholly original works only.

Are we good? I think we’re good. So let’s jump right in with the Top Ten Single Issues list —

10. Goiter #3 By Josh Pettinger (Self-Published) – The strongest comic yet from one of the most promising “emerging” cartoonists out there, I’m glad to see Pettinger moving away from his Clowes/Ware roots and find an authentic perspective all his own with this superb story about a young woman in love with — a chronologically-displaced floating head? Moving, smart, authentic, and deeply emotive work.

9. Rookie Moves By November Garcia (Self-Published) – Probably my favorite autobio cartoonist working today is at her best in this fun and funny (not to mention endlessly charming) mini focused on her transition from star-struck fan girl to “professional” comic artist — who’s still a star-struck fan girl. One of the most earnest and refreshingly un-pretentious reads of the year.

8. Rust Belt #4 By Sean Knickerbocker (Self-Published) – We’ve heard a lot this year about comics that capture the current MAGA-poisoned “cultural moment,” but for my money none succeeded so well as the fourth issue of Knickerbocker’s ongoing “solo anthology” series, as he casts his increasingly-sharp observational eye on the dual personalities of a guy who’s an average enough husband at home, and a rising right-wing social media “star” in his spare time. You know the people in this comic — and while that’s a damn depressing thing to consider, it makes for utterly compelling reading.

7. By Monday I’ll be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage By Laura Lannes (2dcloud) – The most exemplary collection of diary comics I had the pleasure to read in 2018, Lannes’ subtle and self-deprecating tone and smooth, fundamentally inventive cartooning chart the doomed trajectory of a Tinder “romance” in both real-time and a gorgeous, over-sized format. Remarkably restrained for something so personal, this one sticks in your mind long after     closing it.

6. From Crust Till Dawn By Sarah Romano Diehl (Self-Published) – The second chapter in Diehl’s ongoing memoir of her time as a pizza parlor employee unfolds with a dreamlike quality and ease that brings out the character, rather than the nuts-and-bolts specifics, of each instance it portrays — the end result being a joyously unique reading experience quite unlike anything else.

5. Cosmic BE-ING #6 By Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham enters her post-Angloid era with this awesomely bizarre and entirely singular look at the lives of the residents of her “Clown Castle” in the sky who will creep you out and crack you up in equal measure as they point out the absurdities of wage labor, group living, and other everyday taken-as-given situations large and small. The most assured effort yet from one of the most unique talents in cartooning today.

4. Tongues #2 By Anders Nilsen (Self-Published) – The most ambitious (thematically and visually) ongoing narrative in comics ups the mystery even as things come into view more clearly in its various and for-now-disparate plotlines. Gorgeously illustrated and colored, viscerally written, this is a true masterpiece-in-the-making that demands and rewards rigorous re-reading and examination.

3. Perfect Discipline And Unbending Loyalty By Tommi Parrish (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – In the space of just a couple of short years, Parrish has assumed comics’ mantle as the most astute chronicler of the emotional landscape of human interpersonal relations, and in this sumptuously-presented work they disarm, dissect, and ultimately empower their characters as they navigate generational differences with the same delicately understated honesty as they bring to their intuitive mapping of physical, sexual, and even mental intimacy between couples. Staggering, heartfelt, supremely confident work.

2. Frontier #17, Mother’s Walk By Lauren Weinstein (Youth In Decline) – Weinstein’s love letter to her newborn child is a testament to the power of motherhood and cartooning both as it traverses the eternal moment just before a new life enters this world in an elliptical fashion that encapsulates past, present, and future in an ever-present “now” that circles back in on itself and never ends — as is most certainly true of this comic itself, which breaks every pre-conceived notion still remaining as to what the medium is capable of. There’s been a lot of “hype” around this book recently — including from yours truly — but rest assured : none of it captures the full magnificence of all it contains, of all it is.

1. Now #4, Edited By Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics) – The most significant ongoing anthology in well over a decade, Reynolds puts it all together in this issue (with plenty of help from cartoonists like Roman Muradov, Julian Glander, Nathan Cowdry, Matthias Lehmann, Walt Holcombe, Tommi Parrish, and Brian Blomerth, among others), more than living up to the “mission statement” in his book’s title, but going one step further in the process — this isn’t just where comics are at now, it also shows where they’re going in the future. The best, most varied, most effectively curated (I term I try not to use at all, but employ here with absolute precision) assemblage of sequential art you’re going to come across in this year and probably just about any other, this is a shot across the bow, a challenge for everyone to “raise the bar” and make comics that are as confidently-realized as those on offer here.

Whew! Okay! That’s quite the run-down! And we’re just getting started! 2018 really has been an amazing year for comics, and narrowing down each of these lists to just ten “winners” has been a very difficult task indeed. I feel bad about some of the books that didn’t “make the cut,” but I’m very confident in everything I settled on, as well as the specific places they earned. I hope you agree with my selections, sure, but more than that — I hope you’ve found some great new comics to add to your “must-buy” list!

Next up — Top Ten Ongoing Series! I’m aiming to have that list up tomorrow!

You Might Want To Read This Comic Before “Going To Heaven”

There’s no nice way to put it, but deep in our hearts we all know it to be true : when we’re dead, we’re fucking worm food. We’ve got entire belief systems centered on convincing us that’s not the case, of course, and selling life after death is a multi-billion-dollar industry, but ask the most devout Christian/Muslim/Jew/Hindu/whatever, in their most sincere moment, whether or not their faith is any sort of guarantee, and they’ll admit it’s not — and that they just sorta hope they’re right.

Now, whether or not there’s a “God” is another question, and probably one you’re not interested in knowing my opinion on, but fortunately we’re not here to talk about my conception of what the creator of the universe is or isn’t like, may or may not be, etc. — nor how he/she/it runs this whole “afterlife” thing — we’re here to talk about Alex Graham’s, and as you’d no doubt expect if you’re familiar with her work, she’s got some interesting things to say on these subjects in her newly-released comics ‘zine, Going To Heaven.

First, though, we need  to take a look at Graham’s view of — the future?

Hedonism is the order of the day a few short decades from now as she sees things, but even in a world of rampant decadence, Yoboy Gumgorba (don’t ask me where she gets these names) stands out for being willing and eager to, as Frank Booth from Blue Velvet would have it, “fuck anything that moves” — but fucking the wrong guy’s wife gets him stabbed to death, whereupon a bored God decides to allow him entrance through the pearly gates despite being the ultimate sinner, solely for the purpose of shaking things up in the dull and stodgy great beyond.  And that Yoboy certainly does.

This is Graham’s second “sex comic” (the first being last year’s Thems), but rather than being a side-step or a stand-alone work (as was the case for the most recent — and best — issue of her ongoing Cosmic BE-ING series), this ties directly into the larger tapestry of what we’ll call, for lack of a better term, “The Angloid Universe,” not least because Graham’s stand-in (I think, at any rate) character of Angloid turns up in heaven, but because she — well, nah, that would be telling, and you really should read this comic for yourself.

There are no larger issues at play in this story as there are in much/most of Graham’s other works, which have taken aim at low-wage service employment, the phoniness of the “art scene,” the influence of outside forces on our daily lives, and the challenges posed by bipolar disorder (I think?), but that’s okay : her larger ouevre has always been character-driven, absurdist, and decidedly slapstick, as well, and those elements are all present and accounted for as Yoboy works his way up the afterlife’s sexual “food chain,” starting with the only stripper allowed in heaven and eventually graduating to getting a blowjob from — nah, again, that would be telling.

I’m at a loss, at this point, to compare Graham’s work to anyone else’s : her imagination is too unfettered, her id too directly unfiltered, to produce end results that fit into anything as dull and prosaic as a “category” of storytelling, but in terms of approach, if not style, she seems to be very much in a similar place creatively as Chester Brown was back during his Ed The Happy Clown Days, when he was just committing anything and everything that came into his mind onto the page, and letting the shape of his narrative organically form itself around that. In other words, there are very few, if any, more exciting (not to mention funny) cartoonists to be following than Graham right now, and the continued development and honing of her already-impressive skills as an illustrator is the icing on a bizarrely-formed, but undeniably delicious (and just as undeniably metaphorical, sorry) cake. She’s confident enough to trust in her impulses more or less completely at this point, and that makes for a future we should all be looking forward to, as well as a body of work in the present that we should all be grateful for. I truly hope she’s having the time of her life making this stuff, but I dunno, check this self-portrait out and you tell me —

And while you’re at it, check out Going To Heaven as soon as you’re able. Graham tells me that I’m only the second person to read this comic (my guess is that Tom Van Deusen was the first), but she’ll have copies for sale at Short Run in Seattle this weekend and hopefully it’ll be available on her website, or via our mutual friend Austin English’s Domino Books distro outfit, shortly thereafter. Contact her directly if you want a copy now — and at a mere $7.00 for 40 magazine-sized pages with full-color covers, trust me, you do. So quit reading this (it’s over anyway) and go on over to http://alexngraham.com/


Welcome To The Clown Castle : Alex Graham’s “Cosmic BE-ING” #6

Does anybody really like clowns?

I never have, and I can’t think of any of my friends who do — assuming the subject has ever even come up. My wife damn sure doesn’t like them — in fact, they freak her the fuck out on a core level, and to a degree that most people reserve for things like spiders, or heights. Not that she’s terribly fond of either of those things — but I digress. In any case, my original point, I think, still stands : nobody really likes clowns all that much. So don’t ask me where the old saying “everybody loves a clown” comes from.

I don’t know how Alex Graham feels about clowns, though. It’s hard to tell, even though a veritable gaggle of them are at the center of the latest issue of her solo comic, Cosmic BE-ING #6. They live together in a magical castle that appears to be smack-dab in the middle of a desert. Some of them are druggies, although their narcotic of choice is never specified. Some of them have trouble holding onto repetitious, dead-end jobs. Some of them have vaguely sexual yearnings for their fellow clowns. Some of them sit on the couch and read or watch TV.

Yup, these clowns are people very much like you and me — except for that whole magic castle thing. And, ya know, being clowns.

I wondered where Graham was going to go with her series now that the long-running “Angloid” strip has concluded (and been collected, but we already talked about that a couple weeks back), and the answer is — I still don’t know. Which is exactly what I was hoping for, if you can believe that. Dare I attempt to explain what I mean? Oh, if you insist, I’ll do my best —

Graham is one of the rare breed of cartoonists whose instincts and ideas and imagination and even whims or flights of fancy I just implicitly trust. Where she goes, I’m willing and eager to follow because she hasn’t let me down yet. She’s in hitherto-uncharted territory now thematically, with a slightly “tweaked” cartooning style to match — a generally thicker line, more shading and cross-hatching, less-cluttered panels with more “negative space” — and the results, so far, are impressive. Make that quite impressive.

Free from the constraints of long-form narrative, Graham is doing one of my favorite things — throwing a lot of shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Her two lengthier “clown” strips in this book (which, incidentally, offers great value for money — magazine format, full color, on thick, glossy paper for ten bucks? Don’t ask me how that even makes sense for a self-publisher like her with extremely limited distribution) touch briefly on issues of addiction, lethargy, useless toil (as most work is — her clowns taking it to absurd extremes by literally reporting to “work centers” where they type gibberish on paper all day long for no discernible reason), sexual ambiguity, and the joys and freedoms offered by pure randomness and leisure. Somewhere in the middle of all that is something approaching the outlines of at least a point of view, maybe even an actual philosophy, but Graham is taking her time, staking out her territory, moving from the outskirts in. And she’s doing it all with as sharp and keen a sense of observational and absurdist humor as ever.

Don’t misunderstand me : I hope that Graham does, in fact, pursue a “graphic novel”-length type of story again at some point — I just hope that she takes her time getting there. What’s the rush, after all, when the “side-steps” between “Big Project A” and “Big Project B” are this unpredictable, exciting, and entertaining? She can do more completely off-the-wall stuff like using an honest-to-goodness typewriter to fill in her word balloons and caption boxes, or interjecting “throw-away” characters with vaguely elephantine heads, for as long as she needs to until she feels something coalescing, congealing, coagulating — until the next step presents itself. A good artist always knows when the time is right — and Graham is a damn good artist.

The last, short strip in this comic had me a little worried, frankly, about Graham’s state of mind — read it and you’ll see what I mean — but she swears by the end that “it’s all good,” as the young folks say (or said, at any rate, since I don’t know if they still do), and I’m hoping that’s true because creative genius (there, I said it) this singular doesn’t come around too often. If she allows herself more freedom to follow whatever muse(s) flutter across her mind, if she does more comics like this that are content to just be whatever the hell they are, if she “feels her way forward” toward wherever it is that she’s going? I think she may end up being one of the most important cartoonists of her generation — she’s certainly one of the most interesting already.


I have no idea whether or not it’s available anywhere else at this point, but last I checked our friend Austin English had some copies of Cosmic BE-ING #6 for sale on at his Domino Books website, so if you’re going to order it — and you’d have to be insane not to — do so at http://www.dominobooks.org/store.html


Alex Graham’s “Angloid” : Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Wallflower

Say what you will for Alex Graham — and it better be good, or you’ll answer to me — she’s nothing if not absolutely dedicated to her work.

Consider the single-minded determination with which she pursued getting her first long-form graphic novel, Angloid, recently unleashed on an undeserving world from Kilgore Books, to the point it’s at now : she serialized roughly half of the installments that make up the whole of the volume in her self-published comics ‘zine, the always-staggering Cosmic BE-ING; concurrently released the other half as a series of stand-alone comics; collected and published the entirety under her own auspices (not to mention out of her own pocket); and then got herself a “proper” publisher and re-released the whole thing complete with a snazzy photo cover of a clay sculpture she craeted just for the occasion.

Whew! Did you follow all that? Would you have the requisite amount of sheer stamina to do what she’s done?

Or is it just a case of Graham having a hell of a lot of free time? If you take the protagonist of this book to be a stand-in for the artist herself, that’s actually not an unreasonable conclusion to draw — Angloid seems to lead one of those existences that those of us who date all the way back to “Generation X” were either once well-familiar with personally, or vicariously by means of our friends and/or acquaintances : intermittently employed, always broke, forever looking for something to do only to regret what it is we (or they) actually do end up doing. Lethargy is a near-constant, as is inebriation, poor decision-making, and self-loathing so extreme it borders on the suicidal. Fortunately for Angloid, she’s got some unseen allies.

Who would have though than an alcoholic, androgynous (it’s only after a couple of chapters that Angloid is decisively “tagged” as female), only sporadically-likable (but, bizarrely enough, almost always lovable — but then, I’ve always had a soft spot for folks written off as “lost causes” by the dull-witted majority) struggling artist would find herself eternally on the cusp of cosmic revelation? It’s not fair to say that she has anything so pedestrian as “guardian angels” looking over her shoulder, mind you, but she does have vaguely “New-Agey,” less-vaguely alien (or perhaps that should be inter-dimensional) companions that observe her constantly, and intercede at critical junctures — usually when the prospect of self-harm is close at hand.

By and large Angloid is blissfully unaware of the presence of these omniscient “Cosmic BE-INGs,” but when it counts, when it matters — she feels something. She knows something. Her awareness expands, or at least shifts, and even though Graham’s loose, unforced linework never really changes to signify this “other” breaking through into “reality” — melodrama being almost entirely absent from these proceedings, both narratively and visually, with matter-of-factness being privileged above all else no matter how surreal events become — when the story dictates that things need to become different, they do, even if the “language” of the cartooning remains entirely consistent.

Besides, it’s not like any number of encounters with the unknown are going to disrupt the deadpan “flow” of Angloid’s day-to-day existence : she’s still dependent on a scatterbrained gallery owner to try and sell her work; she still needs to get that cafe job; she still longs for companionship (be it in the form of older men at the bar, the stereotypical boy in a band, or even a toaster-headed woman — don’t ask, just read it!), if only to relieve the tedium of an existence seemingly forever-spent circling the drain. Yeah, the tone Graham adopts can often veer toward the bleak — but it’s never dull, never without its moments of keen observational wit, and never too far removed from the prospect of complete metaphysical transformation. It’s that juxtaposition of the mundane with the anything-but that makes this is a dizzyingly unpredictable and (get this) wholly original read from first page to last, and gives even the most seemingly-predictable scenarios a delectable frisson of the wholly exotic.

Of course, one can view this book as being as “meta” as one wishes, and the absolute authenticity with which Graham strings together her vignettes about the — say it with me now — “artist’s life” really do make me wonder whether or not she carries that straight-forward authorial view into all things depicted on these gloriously fluid, expressive pages, specifically : I’d love to know whether or not she believes her own life is observed, even influenced, by “Cosmic Be-INGs” of her own. Certainly a worldview (or maybe that should be a “cosmos-view”) this wonderfully unconventional, communicated (or, if you prefer, “channeled”) with this much naturalistic veracity, must come from somewhere — as must talent this singular. In short, if Alex Graham isn’t in touch with forces beyond our limited human understanding, and if those forces aren’t imparting her with some form of higher-dimensional artistic inspiration, shit — she sure could have fooled me.


2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Single Issues

And so it’s that time of year again : let the debating begin, I suppose, as the various “Top 10” lists begin to hit the internet in earnest, but one thing I think we can all agree on — it’s been quite a year in the world of comics. The underground lost luminaries Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, the mainstream lost Swamp Thing co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson — there have been some tough moments.

But there have also been a number of “highs,” as well — in fact, one could make a fairly convincing argument that 2017 has seen more really fucking good comics published than any year in recent memory. To that end, then, we’re splitting this annual “best of” round-up into several columns, the basics of which will proceed as follows :

The top 10 graphic novels list will be pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a survey of the best original graphic novels of the year. A lot of stuff gets serialized, in whole or in part, online these days, but books that collect pages that cartoonists have serialized in such a manner will be eligible in this category as long as they tell a single, long-form story with something akin to a beginning, a middle, and an end. Collections of serialized short strips, trade paperback collections of single issues and the like, however, will not be listed in this category, since they’ll be going into —

The top 10 collected editions (contemporary) list, which will be composed entirely of previously-published (physically or electronically) works post-Bronze Age, which means anything that collects stuff from the so-called “Modern Age” (roughly the late-1980s right up to the present day) is eligible here. As for the older stuff —

The top 10 collected editions (vintage) list will be the home for all that, with any book and/or periodical presenting material from the birth of the medium up through the aforementioned Bronze Age duking it out for supremacy in this category.

Okay, I hear you say, that’s all fine and good as far as books go, but what of “floppies”? I’m glad you asked, and I came prepared with an answer — one which, believe it or not, actually took a little bit of thinking on my part —

The top 10 comics series list will feature both ongoing and limited series, anything published in single-issue format, with one caveat : annual (or thereabouts) publications like Sammy Harkham’s Crickets or Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats will not be eligible here, nor will any series that saw only two issues published in 2017, since it just seems inherently unfair to have any series that either wrapped very early in the year, or that lots and lots of attention and care are put into, competing against stuff that has to stick to a strict monthly (if not twice-monthly, thanks DC) deadline. These less-frequent publications are, however, eligible in the list that we’ll be starting things off with here —

The top 10 single issues list, which is also the list that mini-comics and one-shots of various stripes will be included in.

Whew! Got all that? Okay, good. I only need to include a couple final caveats, then, before we get started :

1. These will not be lenghty, or even “capsule,” reviews — just quick summations. A good chunk of this stuff I’ve written about in great detail earlier in the year, and some of it I haven’t, but I don’t have either the time or the inclination to get into a “nuts and bolts” analysis of any of it now, and

2. Some stuff that came out very late in 2016 will be sneaking its way onto these lists, not only because I didn’t get a chance to evaluate it before writing my wrap-up columns last year, but also because many comics, particularly small-press comics, don’t find their way into the hands of most readers until a good few months after they’re released due to the fact that they’re not distributed by Diamond to bookstores or comic shops. Self-publishers, especially, often sell their creative wares on personal websites for some time before “catching on” with small-press distros like Spit And A Half, etc. And then there’s the whole situation with My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, which rolled off Korean printing presses in October of last year — but only a small batch of advance review copies made it here to the US before 2016 was out, the rest remaining stuck in the Panama Canal Zone until March of 2017, since the guy who owned the cargo ship they were coming over on had some back bills to pay before he could get his vessel out of hock.

Alright, with all that out of the way, then, let’s get on with the show —

10. I Wish I Was Joking by Tom Van Deusen (Poochie Press) – Van Deusen has long been one of the out-and-out funniest cartoonists out there, and this may very well be his best comic yet since he makes his stand-in “alternative” newsweekly reporter actually likable for a change. Less caustic than his previous works, but much more — dare I say it — charming.

9. Cosmic BE-ING #5 by Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham’s serialized Angloid story has its strongest outing yet, and also its most, believe it or not, down to Earth. Still “trippy” and “New Age” as all get-go, but far more anchored in workaday bread-and-butter concerns than prior installments. Graham’s remarkable illustration skills are really hitting a creative stride now, as well.

8. Trim #5 by Aaron Lange (The Comix Company) – Probably the most compelling issue of Lange’s annually-issued “solo anthology” to date, with intriguing explorations of his family’s German ancestry and a “cool” pastor he knew as a kid among the highlights. Plenty of laugh-out-loud gag strips, as well, most centered around the cartoonist’s art school days.

7. Lovers In The Garden by Anya Davidson (Retrofit/Big Planet Comics) – Some might argue that this is a “graphic novel,” but I’d call it “novella” length at best. Categorize it however you want, though, there’s no doubting that Davisdon’s assured cartooning makes her ’70s-grindhouse-style tale of dope dealers and cops a highly memorable read that holds together way better than most “vignette”-centered comics manage to.

6. Malarkey #2 by November Garcia (Self-Published) – Not just the best thing going in autobio comics right now, but the best thing to happen to autobio comics in years — and Garcia’s slices of life look even better with a little bit of color added to the mix. Possibly the most endearing comic you’ll read this year, which still seems a bizarre thing to say given most of its contents deal with alcoholism and neuroses, but there you have it.

5. Now #1 (Fantagraphics) – Eric Reynolds’ new anthology gets off to a more-than-promising start, with standout contributions from Eleanor Davis, Noah Van Sciver, Kaela Graham, Dash Shaw, and many others. 128 pages of the best in contemporary cartooning for ten bucks? Come on, you can’t do better than that.

4. Crickets #6 by Sammy Harkham (Self-Published) – The most deliriously arresting chapter of “Blood Of The Virgin” yet, as Harkham delineates the immediate, and seemingly complete, ruination of his protagonist’s life in rapid-fire fashion with an intriguing mix of empathy and clinical distance. I get the distinct impression that he doesn’t like Seymour all that much, but feels bad about what he’s doing to him regardless. Visually literate to a degree that’s almost painful.

3. Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket) – The winner of the 2017 Ignatz award for “Best Comic Book,” Passmore’s monologue on the reality of black life in America is concise, superbly-illustrated, and absolutely compelling. 12 pages you’ll never forget — because you’ll be reading them again and again.

2. Providence #12 by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – The conclusion to Moore and Burrows’ “Lovecraft Cycle” is every bit as harrowing and terrifying as the previous 11 issues had suggested it would be, and then some — in fact, it’s downright devastating. It’s well past time to put this series in the discussion of Moore’s all-time best works, and Burrows absolutely pulls out all the stops in bringing the existential horror of the dawn of this dark new age to life. A bona fide masterwork.

1. Songy Of Paradise by Gary Panter (Fantagraphics) – Okay, I admit this one’s a bit of a cheat given that it’s an oversized (to put it mildly) hardcover boasting a $35 cover price — but for all that, it’s still only 32 pages long, so that makes it a “single issue” in my book. And a damn engrossing one at that, as Panter finally puts his Paradise/Purgatory trilogy to bed with its most deceptively “simple” (as in, it’s anything but) segment yet. Rest assured, though, even if you haven’t read the other two books, this is an accessible, engaging, thought-provoking work that reveals more of its hiding-in-plain-sight secrets with every reading. A truly seminal effort from one of the most important cartoonists of his generation — or any other.

Trust me when I say you can’t go wrong with any of these comics, and I’m very comfortable with the “running order” I’ve placed them in. There were some damn close contenders that nearly made the cut, but time will tell if I get a chance to do an “honorable mentions” listing once the main event’s all said and done. One thing at a time, as they say. Speaking of which —

Next up I’ll be looking at my picks for the top 10 ongoing series of the year, so I’ll definitely look forward to seeing you good folks back here in a handful of days for that one. In the meantime, if you’ve got anything to say about this list, don’t be shy! What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I completely miss out on? Chime in and let me know!