Catching Up With Alex Nall’s “Kids With Guns”

You can’t keep a good cartoonist down, and Alex Nall is considerably more than that, so when we all went into “lockdown mode” he continued releasing his ongoing Kids With Guns series online, with the most flexible payment terms I believe anyone’s every offered : if you read it and liked it, he just asked you to pay whatever you could afford for it. Now that we’re pretending the pandemic is over, though, the siren call of self-publishing has once again called out to him, and actual, physical copies of issues three and four are finally available — and it’s now incumbent upon me to tell you why you should buy them.

I’ve already reviewed the first two installments of this quiet, human-scale epic, but for those unfamiliar with the particulars, the most basic distillation I can offer is that what we’ve ostensibly got here is the story of an inter-generational friendship between neighbors Mel, aged 80, and Milo, aged ten, but really that’s the main patch of fabric in the center of the whole thing and there are threads protruding from it that Nall is pulling in any number of interesting directions. The exact nature of the book’s title has yet to fully manifest itself, although it’s certainly hinted at in a manner it wouldn’t even be fair to call oblique, but Nall is more concerned with examining what causes people to pull the trigger than he is with the fact that the gun is there. And no, I don’t mean that in the same sense the NRA does with their “guns don’t kill people, it’s people who kill people” propagandistic nonsense. Rather, this is — or at this juncture would at least very well appear to be — a story about how violence both imposes itself upon “everyday” lives in some circumstances, or slowly and inexorably creeps into it, almost unnoticed, in others. I hope that makes it sound sufficiently fascinating, because trust me when I say that is absolutely is.

In these two most recent issues, events within Milo’s peer group are building to a head as he’s nudged toward a “time to prove yourself” situation, while at the same time Mel struggles to finally begin processing the nightmare flashbacks to his tenure in the service, and so we’re presented with a potential for something tragically violent and the difficult and long-lasting ramifications of violence in fairly equal measure — and while this may seem an overly-obvious, perhaps even belabored, way to go about exploring a theme, those who would discount it out of hand before reading are simply woefully ill-informed as to Nall’s sheer cartooning prowess. His scratchy but in no way imprecise line, strong use of black inks, naturalist design sense, and un-fussy page layouts combine to give his work a feeling that’s equal parts Tom Hart and Chester Brown — hell, one might even argue that it establishes and subsequently occupies a kind of halfway point between the two of them — yet it curiously doesn’t owe an overt debt to anyone else’s style in any specific sense. There are two kinds or artists in this world, it seems to me : those who study what others do and consciously borrow elements they like from various influences, and those who just draw the way they want to draw and let the chips fall where they may, knowing that everything looks kinda like something that’s come before, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do your own thing. Nall, happily and clearly, falls into the latter camp.

Here’s the thing that sets his stuff apart from so many of his contemporaries, though : Nall understands kids, and cares about them. Much of his previous work — I’m thinking specifically of Teaching Comics and Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours, an exploration of the life and legacy of Fred Rogers that was released just before Hollywood started paying attention to him again after far too long — is focused on children, and perhaps more specifically on mentorship, and while those themes obviously come into play here as well, it’s worth noting that no two kids Nall has ever written or drawn are alike. Maybe it’s due to his work as an educator himself, maybe he’s just got a knack for it, but the children in Nall’s comics are complex, involving, well-rounded people, and he’s keenly aware of the various joys and struggles attendant with different stages of their development. There are any number of cartoonists who, if you’ll notice, routinely struggle with even drawing children, but Nall has no reservation about constructing entire works around them, and has a more natural affinity for doing so than anyone I can mention not named Schulz. Which may sound like ridiculously heavy praise, I’ll be the first to admit, but you know what? It’s absolutely well-earned.

It’s also an opinion I’m pretty sure I’ve expressed before, at least in conversation if not in “print,” but it bears repeating because it becomes more and more true with each successive issue of this comic. Milo’s no Charlie Brown by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s in Nall’s refusal to pigeonhole kids into narrow pre-conceived (by adults, of course) roles, in his determination to treat them with the respect they deserve, and his commitment to honor their stories while at the same time letting them just, well, be kids, that the through-line between two works as admittedly different as Peanuts and Kids With Guns is found. It’s something I don’t state lightly, and in many ways strikes me as the greatest compliment I can conceive of.

Which is entirely appropriate, I suppose, given that this is unquestionably one of the best comics being made by anybody right now.

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Issues three and four of Kids With Guns are available for $8.00 each from Alex Nall’s Storenvy site at https://www.storenvy.com/stores/390761-alex-nall-comics

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53,” this is the “blackout edition” that I’m guessing probably won’t be available a whole lot longer.

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together : Alex Nall’s “Kids With Guns” #2

It’s always a tricky thing, when you want to convince people to not just read, but actually buy a comic — yet you don’t want to give much, if anything, of said comic away. Such is the case with the second issue of Alex Nall’s self-published series Kids With Guns, so I guess the best way to go here is to proceed with caution — just as I probably would if confronted by, say, an armed child.

I gave the first issue of this comic high marks, but I was expecting something of a slow burn — the unusual, but for all intents and purposes reciprocal and healthy, inter-generational friendship between 10-year-old Milo and his eighty-year-old neighbor, Mel, was the focal point of that debut installment, and while there were hints that the provocative title Nall chose for this project was going to come into play at some point, the pacing suggested that character development and the rather subtle, perhaps even accidental, manner in which a generally good kid can end up going down a disastrous and even tragic path were likely to go hand-in-hand as events unfolded — and while he hasn’t necessarily steered things in a direction that completely negates that initial supposition, it’s fair to say (and I’ll say very little else) that he also very nearly completely blows that all up, as well.

That might sound confusing, for all intents and purposes, but trust me when I say reading this comic is anything but — Nall’s storytelling has always been remarkably straightforward, and that remains the case here, but events take on an urgency that is equal parts welcome and entirely unforeseen, so my advice would be to buckle in. Even if answers to the numerous questions that are bound to pop up in your mind are more hinted at than explicitly answered (as it should be at this stage), we’re still dealing with some pretty consequential shit here, although it’s also true to say that how central it is (or isn’t) to the main narrative remains to be seen in many respects. Annnnndddd — I may have given away more than I wanted to already. But hopefully not.

What I certainly can speak freely about is Nall’s cartooning, which just keeps on getting stronger and stronger. Firmly rooted in the “Sunday funnies” tradition, it’s nevertheless entirely unique in today’s wondrously-crowded comics landscape, echoing the linework and somewhat deadpan attitude of Jon Lewis only with people rather than animals, but with an acute awareness of its own strengths that often takes artists years to figure out. Too often emerging talents have a tendency to rush things, to take on more than they’re necessarily ready for, and while ambition is always a welcome trait for any artist to possess, there’s a lot to be said for Nall’s approach, which concerns itself with refining technique and honing in on things done inherently well before working outwards and adding new wrinkles. The end result is something incredibly visually literate and a real joy to look at.

It may, however, be a bit of a reach to call this mini a joy to read, simply because the subject matter might be less than outright disturbing at this juncture, it’s by no means easy to digest. Nall is tackling some troubling but extremely necessary issues, and doing so with the respect, grace, and intelligence they deserve, but things are getting pretty heavy pretty quickly, and I fully expect that trajectory to continue for however many issues it takes for this story to be told.

I’m thinking that may not be as many as I first suspected (my initial guess was that we were looking at something like a 10-or 12-part series, and who knows? Maybe we still are), but one thing’s for certain : Alex Nall is in full control of his own vision here, doing things precisely his way, so whether this turns out to be a long-form project or a short-form one, it’s bound to be a moving and impactful one. In fact, it already is.

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Kids With Guns #2 is available for $8.00 from Alex Nall’s Storenvy site at https://alexnallcomics.storenvy.com/products/29607874-kids-with-guns-no-2

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 I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

It’s that time of the year — specifically, the end of it. Or near enough, at any rate, for my purposes — those “purposes” being to survey the comics landscape and pick my favorites from 2019’s slate of offerings. As per the norm, I’ll be dividing things up into a veritable boat-load of different categories — top ten single issues (stand-alone comics, or ongoing projects that saw only one installment published in the last calendar year), top ten ongoing series (any comic series or “limited” series that saw two or more issues come out in 2019), top ten vintage collections (books presenting material originally published prior to the year 2000), top ten contemporary collections (books presenting material originally published after the year 2000), top ten special mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books about comics, art books, prose and/or visual works by cartoonists that aren’t exactly “comics” per se, etc.), and top ten original graphic novels (long-form original works never serialized in single issues) — and again, as per usual, we’ll kick things off with the top ten single issues list, with the others following in the coming days. Now, let’s stop dawdling and get down to business, shall we?

10. Kids With Guns #1 By Alex Nall (Self-Published) – The opening salvo of Nall’s first-ever ongoing serial instantly captured my attention with its strong characterization, sublime grasp on inter-generational relations, and oblique-but-effective social commentary, all rendered in his signature updated take on traditional “Sunday Funnies” cartooning. This project could go in any number of fascinating directions, and may or may not be about what its title implies. I’m looking forward to finding out.

9. Expelling My Truth By Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books) – Nobody employs exaggeration and absurdity to tell the “truth” about both modern life and themselves quite like Van Deusen, and in his latest, his trademark satirical wit has never been sharper while his line art has never been smoother. Always a study in contrasts, this guy, but he’s found an inimitable way to make his work’s deliberate and inherent contradictions become its raison d’etre.

8. Rodeo #1 By Evan Salazar (Self-Published) – Debuts don’t come much stronger than this one, as Salazar immediately establishes himself as a cartoonist with a unique perspective and a natural gift for storytelling, his tale of a temporary family break-up as seen through a particularly precocious child’s eyes revealing much more about what’s happening than a straight re-telling of the “facts” of the situation ever could. Emotionally and intellectually arresting in equal measure, and drawn in a confident, non-flashy style, this is one of the best single-creator anthology titles to come down the pipeline in many a year.

7. Stunt By Michael DeForge (Koyama Press) – I struggled with which category to put this one in, but eventually settled on single issues simply because it’s formatted like a Jack T. Chick tract even if it’s priced like a book — it’s also, in true DeForge fashion, imbued with a hell of a lot more philosophical depth than its page count would lead you to believe. A rumination on identity and its voluntary, even necessary, abandonment filtered through his usual lens of homoeroticism and gooey body horror, this short-form offering ranks right up there with the cartoonist’s most confidently-realized works.

6. Nabokova By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – It was such a strong and prolific year for Oshima that choosing a favorite among her works was tough, but in point of fact this is the one where she really “puts it all together” and delivers a treatise on alienation, self-absorption and the fine line between the two that’s every bit as dense as the Russian literature its title invokes — but it won’t, fortunately, take you all winter to to read it. Spellbinding stuff that will leave your head spinning with questions.

5. Castle Of The Beast By Ariel Cooper (Self-Published) – Fear of intimacy has never been delineated as beautifully or as sympathetically as it is in Cooper’s lush, breathtaking visual tone-poem that masterfully blends the concrete and the abstract into a comics experience quite unlike any other. Within a couple of years, this will be the cartoonist everyone is talking about

4. Tulpa By Grace Kroll (Self-Published) – It’s astonishing to see anyone bare their soul and their struggles as frankly as Kroll does in this, her first ever comic, but do so in a manner that brings forth genuine understanding rather than simply playing for sympathy? There are cartoonists that spend their whole careers struggling with what she achieves on her very first go-’round, and her singular art style is as smart as it is innovative.

3. For Real By James Romberger (Uncivilized Books) – The only thing more heroic than Jack Kirby’s characters was the man himself, and in this heartfelt tribute, master artist Romberger relates two harrowing life-and-death challenges The King faced in a manner than honors his style yet is in no way beholden to it. Another unforgettable comics experience by a cartoonist who never produces anything less.

2. Malarkey #4 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Long the champion of neurotic self-deprecation, by tracing the roots of both to her Catholic upbringing, Garcia ups the stakes — and the results — considerably and establishes herself as precisely what previous issues of this comic hinted she might become : the best autobio cartoonist in the business. And maybe even the heir apparent to the great Justin Green? In any case, her moment has well and truly arrived. Now, will somebody get busy collecting all her stuff into a book, please?

1. Tad Martin #7 By Casanova Frankenstein (Domino Books)  – I could say that seeing Frankenstein and his nominally stand-in protagonist matched up with the production values they so richly deserve is a “dream come true,” but this gorgeous, full-color, oversized comic is actually a nightmare come to life — and harrowing, soul-searing life at that. Always an exercise in re-invention, this issue of Tad combines elements of all the previous entries in this sporadic series into a comprehensive vision of nihilism as the only thing worth living for. Other cartoonists will have to fight for a place edging toward the middle — the margins of the medium are already spoken for.

And so we’re off to the races with “Top Ten” week. I’ll be tackling the best ongoing series next, but in the meantime do 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. Please do yourself — and, who are we kidding, me — a favor by checking it out at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Armed — And Dangerous? Alex Nall’s “Kids With Guns” #1

Ostensibly the story of a friendship between 10-year-old Milo and his 80-year-old neighbor, Mel, the first issue of Alex Nall’s apparently-ongoing new self-published minicomics series, Kids With Guns, clearly aims to touch on much more, and goes about its business quickly but in a manner that’s no way forced — its title is as combustible as it is topical, and its interior contents are tailor-made to match. Where it’s all going is, at this early stage, an open question — but whether or not you’re going to want to follow Nall and his characters there? That’s a lead-pipe cinch early on.

Which isn’t the greatest metaphor for me to conjure up, I suppose — why bring a lead pipe to a gunfight? — but it’s late as I write this, and this comic has yet to worms its way out of my brain. Few cartoonists not named Schulz have a better, clearer, more intuitive understanding of a child’s mindset than Nall (his years as an arts educator are paying off on the printed page), but his unassuming long-form masterpiece, Lawns, showed that he was equally in tune with the contemporary zeitgeist of “fly-over country,”as well, particularly the uneasy place eccentrics hold within it — and here both of those not-exactly-polarities-but-let’s-go-with-it (again, it’s late) provide the narrative ebb and flow when such is necessary, downright tug when that’s in order. This is who we are, as seen through the eyes of one who’s been there and done that, as well as one who’s only just arriving.

What can be counted on is the absolute skill and charm of Nall’s classically-influenced cartooning, brisk and expressionistic with smartly-chosen points of visual emphasis, but what can’t be counted on is the health of the relationship between our two principals — Mel’s heart appears to be in the right place, but introducing a kid to the purported “joys” of a rubber band gun may not be the smartest move in the post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook, post-every-other-goddamn-school shooting era. Nall’s not afraid to tackle this head on, as a new broadcast announcing yet another of these tragic events gives Mel pause to think, but is it already too little, too late? At what point are pernicious influences imprinted upon us? Was Arthur Janov right all along? Were the Catholics who harped on about “original sin” without ever pinpointing exactly what that sin was?

Yeah, we’re gonna go that deep here — I think. But it’s not like Nall’s out to beat you over the head, or even to hold your hand. Like the best of his cohorts in this beleaguered medium, he’s a master at asking the important questions, but lets you evaluate — and subsequently choose from — all the various and sundry potential answers for yourself. What that means in practical terms is a story with a message that refuses to sacrifice the former in service of the ladder. Young cartoonists, pay attention — this is how you do relevance without torching narrative integrity.

The idea of a serialized story is one that’s coming around at the right time for this particular comics auteur, as well — having shown his artistic chops with the single-pager and the “graphic novel,” he’s clearly both ready for, and in need of, a new challenge, and this promises to be exactly that. Yeah, odds are it’ll be collected in its entirety at some point, but planning and executing a story chapter by chapter is a different beast than plotting out a 100-odd page self-contained text. The placement of key story “beats” and plot revelations are more gradual and more precise simultaneously, and when you’ve mastered everything you’re tried to the near-flawless extent Nall has, you’re in a “stagnation equals death” equation. If Kids With Guns #1 proves one thing above all else, it’s that we needn’t worry about him being a cartoonist willing to rest on his laurels. Yes, he’s keenly aware of what he does well, but that doesn’t (and in the best of circumstances shouldn’t) mean he’s not willing to play to his own strengths while moving outside the confines of his own comfort zone. There’s confidence in announcing that you know what you’re good at, as long as that doesn’t mean you’re unwilling to get better at it, or to explore it within a different framework and ethos.

All of which is me letting you know this is a serious work undertaken by someone with a serious need to keep growing as an artist. It’s an astute piece of commentary on where we find ourselves that’s determined to demonstrate both how we got here and how we might get ourselves out — or maybe that should be if we can get ourselves out.

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Kids With Guns #1 is available for $8.00 from Alex Nall’s Storenvy site at https://alexnallcomics.storenvy.com/products/28630190-kids-with-guns-no-1

And while you’re in a spending mood, please consider supporting my own 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. The link for that is https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 05/05/2019 – 05/11/2019, Alex Nall

It’s no secret that Chicago’s Alex Nall is one of my favorite cartoonists on the face of the goddamn planet. I’ve previously reviewed his long-form works Teaching Comics Volume OneLet Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours, and Lawns on this site, but for this week’s Round-Up column we’re going to look at four of his mins, not least because two of ’em are brand new and you should get your hands on them by whatever means possible! Or, ya know, just head over to his Storenvy site and see what he’s got, or bug him for what he doesn’t until he does. Here’s a link for that :http://alexnallcomics.storenvy.com/products

The Rain Is Slow Coming is one of his brand new ones, a wistful and lyrical “love letter” from a farmer to his daughter about the land they’re barely hanging onto by the skin of their teeth, the loss they’ve endured, and the magic (often dangerous magic) of her youthful imagination. Downright poetic at times (not least because a significant chunk of the text is, in fact, a Carl Sandburg poem), exquisitely simple in its illustration, this is very nearly a perfect comic — hell, the perfect comic — barring the curious placement of a few blank pages that interrupt the otherwise-rhythmic flow. That being said, it’s a small gripe, and this is definitely a “must-buy” item well worth the six dollar price tag.

School Approved is the other newbie, a pocket-sizer that sells, I believe, for a buck — and even has some color to boot! — this follows very much in the Teaching Comics tradition and recounts an afternoon Nall spent with his students in the school computer lab, where he reminisces about the early days of the internet and ponders how its development will affect their future; or, vice-versa, how their development will affect its future. As always, Nall has a way of making even the most “been there, done that” subject matter seem fresh, new, and exciting simply because he listens to and understands kids, rather than merely employing them as props in his stories. Great stuff that you will also want to own.

Juan & John Comics is another one you can get your hands on for the bargain price of a dollar that collects a series of short strips about two armless pals that Nall made in collaboration with a student of his named Clinton who appears to have a hell of a keen sense of humor for an elementary school kid. Our pair of protagonists do fairly everyday things like going to see zombie movies at the drive-in or flying kites in the park, but there’s always some unexpected or even innovative twist you didn’t see coming that makes their deceptively simple misadventures stick in the memory. More wonderful cartooning, this time from a master and his very promising pupil.

Morbid Dork #1 is one right outta the “way-back machine” that I seriously doubt you can even score a copy of in this day and age and that shows a very different Nall at a very different stage in his artistic development telling very different types of stories — namely, the age-old “roommates from hell” type of yarns that were positively ubiquitous in the 1990s “indie” scene. Three roomies who refer to each other as “Psycho,” “Pussy,” and “Asshole” navigate shit jobs and a shittier living situation with far more humor than you’d expect given, again, how “played-out” this entire concept was by the time Nall got around to it, what? Six or seven years ago? Some rather curious “wide-open” spaces on certain pages again sort of muck up the flow, but this comic is still about ten times better than it’s got any right to be. Sells for three bucks, assuming you can find it anywhere. I think he did a second issue at some point, as well, although I’ve yet to procure a copy myself.

Another week, another column, and at the end, another pitch for the Patreon, where you can get exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings from yours truly on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. I recently lowered the minimum tier to a dollar, and that’ll still get you two posts a week plus access to most of the older stuff — and frankly there’s already quite a lot of it on there. I’ve been at this for three or four months, I think, and there’s already over 50 reviews, articles, opinion pieces, and whatnot on offer, so seriously — join up! It’s the best value going on that entire site. Here’s your link, I won’t take “no” for an answer :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

So — here we are. The end of the road as far as our year-end “Top 10” lists go and, I would imagine, the one of most interest to the greatest number of readers — my picks for favorite original graphic novels of 2018, emphasis on the word “original.” One of our selections started life as a mini-comic, but was fleshed out greatly to become what it is today, while everything else on the list is a wholly original, not-previously-serialized work, designed and constructed especially for release in the “graphic novel” format. I think that’s about all the preamble required, so pardon me while I roll up my sleeves and type my ass off for a few minutes —

10. Monkey Chef By Mike Freiheit (Kilgore Books) – Our resident “rule-breaker” is first out of the gate, a book whose eventual greatness was hinted at in some self-published minis, but really came into its own when completed and collected between two covers. Freiheit’s autobiographical saga of his time cooking for primates (and their evolutionary descendants) in South Africa while falling in love with someone halfway across the world is possibly the most flat-out enjoyable read of the year, as well as a spectacular showcase for his fully-emerged skills as both illustrator and colorist. If Hollywood’s paying any attention, this would make a great movie — but it’ll always be an even better comic.

9. The Winner By Karl Stevens (Retrofit/Big Planet) – Another autobio book? Why yes, it is, and a downright spectacular one at that, as Stevens shines a brightly illuminating light on “the artist’s life” of underemployment, addiction/recovery, and the never-ending struggle to find both something worth saying and a way to say it. Illustrated in a breathtaking variety of styles with painstaking attention to detail as well as care and emotion to spare, this book is also an understated but deeply moving verbal and visual love poem to his wife and muse. Genuine tour de force stuff in every respect.

8. Poochytown By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)  – The first of three essentially wordless books on this list (take that to mean what you will about my own discipline as a reader — or, rather, lack thereof), Woodring’s latest excursion into the “Unifactor” results in his most harrowing, “trippy,” lushly-rendered, and hilarious “Frank” story yet. So goddamn charming it’s almost painful — but it’s the kind of pain that feels really good and looks even better.

7. I Am Young By M. Dean (Fantagraphics) – Heartfelt, bold, and addictively page-turning — to say nothing of absolutely gorgeous to look at — Dean’s examination of love’s sudden arrival and slow-burn diffusion is virtuoso work, each page replete with raw and honest emotion and eye-poppingly beautiful illustration. Love hurts, yeah, you know it and I know it — but you’re gonna love this book precisely for that fact, rather than in spite of it.

6. Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters By Alex Degen (Koyama Press) – A sci-fi silent movie rendered in lavish and explosive color that’s part breakneck adventure yarn, part dystopian nightmare, and all unique unto itself, Degen throws down a gauntlet here that few should even attempt to pick up, simply because no one else speaks his entirely self-created sequential art language. “Like nothing before or since” is the starting point of this book rather than the end result — go with its flow, and end up somewhere entirely and alluringly unexpected.

5. Lawns By Alex Nall (Kilgore Press) – One of the most exciting new talents to come along in the last few years, Nall “puts it all together” in his strongest work yet, a vaguely Lynch-ian examination of one small town resident’s quest to simply be left the fuck alone to live his life, his way. We’ve been hearing a lot about comics that capture the “cultural moment” in 2018, and while I intend no offense to works like Sabrina or A House In The Jungle, the simple truth of the matter is that, for my money, this book manages that task with much more humor, heart, and deceptive ease than its “fellow travelers” by a country mile. Where and who we are is a deep and profound question, of course, but equally important is whatever answer we come up with. I would submit that Nall hits the nail precisely on the head in that regard, and does so in a manner that almost anyone can relate to.

4. In Christ There Is No East Or West By Mike Taylor (Fantagraphics Underground) – This one arrived late and shook up the preliminary “running order” of my entire list more or less immediately. A metaphysical travelogue of the soul that journeys inward precisely at a time when so many comics are focused outward, Taylor’s book resonates so deeply and so strongly that reading it is akin to an epiphany — and the fact that it boasts arguably the finest production values of the year certainly doesn’t hurt, either. My God, that fold-out poster cover! Even leaving aside the bells and whistles, though, this is about as confident and unforgettable an artistic and philosophical statement of intent as you’re likely to encounter in this medium of ours this year — and possibly for many to come.

3. The Lie And How We Told It By Tommi Parrish (Fantagraphics) – Don’t let the amorphous and eternally transient (in every sense of the word) nature of Parrish’s dual protagonists fool you, this is a story that knows exactly what it’s doing, even if the characters in neither of its concurrent narratives seem to. Picture one raw nerve spread out over the course of well over a hundred pages and getting thinner and more frayed as it goes and you’re getting some idea of what’s going on in this comic, even though it’s ostensibly simply “about” two estranged friends catching up on their lives after a chance meeting, and the book one of them finds along the way. Parrish’s vibrant painted comics certainly have a singular look to them, but it’s the singular way the cartoonist grapples with issues of personal, sexual, gender, and body identity that makes them one of the most ground-breaking and challenging talents to come along in — just about ever, really.

2. Grip Vol. 1 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – A non-stop tidal wave of action, dynamism, and unapologetic feminism that leaves the need for dialogue and captions in the dust, Westvind manages to do something hitherto-unseen in this book by marrying superhero tropes with a salute to working women (particularly those in the so-called “blue collar” trades) to create the most visually stimulating comic of the year, but also one that fully engages the mind and heart as surely as it does the eyes. One of the most powerful comics to come down the pipeline in ages, actually, but ultimately even more notable for how empowering it is. Simply put — prepare to be blown away.

1. Qoberious Vol. 1 (Self-Published) – As thematically and conceptually dense as it is physically slim, the debut graphic novel by the mysterious (and pseudonymous) D.R.T., rendered in a style that most approximates the look of weathered or otherwise-muted animation cels, is something I honestly don’t think this medium has ever produced before : a work that not only reveals new depths with each successive re-read, but literally forces you to interpret and analyze it in entirely new ways. I’ve read it something like 20 times now, and no two experiences have been the same, even if certain themes (physical bondage, alienation from society, from family, and even from oneself) persist. Readers will be poring over this one for decades to come, unable to even verbalize the nature of the feelings it elicits, never mind how and why it manages to do so. An artifact from another, infinitely more artistically advanced, civilization than our own, language is too outmoded a tool for expressing the sheer sense of admiration and amazement I have for what is unquestionably my pick for book of the year.

And so — that’s 2018, boiled down to six lists. I read a lot of other good stuff, as well as plenty of crap, in the past 12 months, and would sincerely like to thank those of you who came along for the ride and made the first year of Four Color Apocalypse a bigger success (in terms of sheer readership numbers, at any rate) than I ever could have possibly imagined. Next week we get back down to business as usual, and start the long, but no doubt enjoyable, process of finding out what the best books of next year are going to be!

Alex Nall’s “Lawns” : Piercing The Veil Of Small-Town Wholesome Americana

“In a town like Twin Peaks,” the promotional advertisements for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks : Fire Walk With Me informed us, “no one is innocent.”

Of course, when his foolishly-lambasted masterpiece (for my money, at any rate) hit theaters back in 1992, Lynch had already made something of a career out of exposing the dark underbelly of the American myth — whether he was shining an uncomfortable light on the shadows cast by the apple pie exterior of small-town life in Blue Velvet, or exploring the corrosive pressure applied by pop culture iconography on the socially-and-economically-marginalized in Wild At Heart, he had staked out a viewpoint (to say nothing of a distinctly surreal style) all his own by the time he finally guided us through Laura Palmer’s harrowing final days.

Cartoonist Alex Nall, by contrast — who mines certain similar thematic veins in his latest Kilgore Books graphic novel, Lawns — has been busy plying his trade (and plying it very well, as anyone who’s read my glowing reviews of his two previous efforts, Teaching Comics Volume One and Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours — or, better yet, read the books themselves — already knows) in a wholly different environment up to now, either relaying his direct experiences as an arts educator, or filtering his exploration of the life and work of the great Fred Rogers through the lens said experiences have afforded him. He is, in other words, in very unfamiliar territory here — but you’d never know it.

Ostensibly set in the mid-1990s for reasons that frankly escape me, Lawns is one of the more tight and concise ensemble-cast dramas you’ll ever read, nearly all principal players enjoying roughly equal “screen time” in this tale of how a contested mayor’s race rips off all the scabs a once-closely-knit community thought were healing up just fine. Most of the characters are “local eccentrics” of the sort Twin Peaks excelled at portraying, but Nall’s narrative is decidedly “non-Lynchian” in its structure, playing things pretty straightforward throughout, barring a couple of well-timed flashback sequences.

Likewise, his illustrations tend toward the economical and lithe, superbly conveying a generous amount of visual information with precisely the right amount of effort required. The book neither reads nor looks particularly “flashy” or stylized, but it’s done exactly right — Nall has hit on the exact approach necessary to do his characters, and their intersecting stories, justice. These are infinitely complex people, all hiding any number of secrets and past traumas, but who can somehow fit (though not always comfortably) into what appears, on the surface, to be a typically “folksy” tapestry of American life.

Until, of course, that tapestry begins to unfurl.

All things being equal, I should make it good and clear that Nall’s story could just as easily be happening today as 20 years ago, so timeless are the economic and social concerns that he touches upon, but from where I’m sitting it’s not providing a snapshot of either an uncomfortable past or present that is his primary goal here — rather, again like both Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart, this is about “everyday” people navigating through complex situations outside of their experience (and, in some cases, their pay grade), only to find something true and redemptive within their lives that is worth hanging onto and may even be enough to keep the darkness at bay. No one is exactly the same by the time their various “arcs” coalesce into something like a “conclusion,” but they’ve all found a place that will work for them, and that they have a greater appreciation for based on all they’ve been through. It takes a deft touch to pull all this off and not make it feel like a hammer bashing against your skull, of course, but Nall is nothing at this point if not an absolute master of the subtle, communicating more by means of one facial expression or slight quirk in movement than many of his peers are able to over protracted sequences of belabored panels. It takes a damn good cartoonist to make what he does look this easy — especially when you understand that it’s anything but.

I dunno, at this point simply referring to Nall as a “talent to watch” seems like selling what he’s been able to achieve this quickly in his career far too short. He hit the ground running with a distinctly earnest vision of how he wanted to approach his work in his very first comic and has never looked back (or to his sides, or to — wherever), and with Lawns he translates that near-flawless methodology into an entirely new (for him, that is) realm of storytelling. It starts with an overgrown yard and a dog bite — it ends up being about, well, almost everything that matters. A supremely confident, fully-realized work that engages both heart and mind from its first page to its last.

Let Some Of Your Time Be Spent On Alex Nall’s “Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours”

The day that I write this review, March 20th, 2018, marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of one of the kindest, most sincere, most genuinely good people this country — perhaps even this world — has ever produced. A man for whom the words “legend” and “icon” are, somehow, too small — even though he would no doubt balk at being referred to as either. A man with more genuine compassion and love in his heart than perhaps anyone we’ll ever see in the public sphere again. A man who cared for every child on the planet as if they were his own and who makes me want to believe that there really is a heaven for his soul to have ascended to after his death. I’m speaking, of course, of the singularly brilliant, compassionate, kind, and frankly beautiful (in the truest sense of the word) Fred Rogers, creator of the most important and empowering children’s television program of all time, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

But you know what? Nothing I can say extolling the virtues of this as-near-to-flawless-as-we-may-ever-see human being can possibly compare to what Chicago-based cartoonist Alex Nall has to say about him in his newest book, Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours. We took a look at Nall’s superb Teaching Comics : Volume One last week, and in some ways this is a thematic follow-up or, if you will, “sequel” to that book, but even though this comic (I still hesitate to use the term “graphic novel,” even though it really does apply in this case) is shorter than the last (still, 80 pages is nothing to sneeze at) this is a considerably more ambitious work, telling one cohesive and self-contained narrative from start to finish rather than being an assemblage of single-page strips into a whole “story.” Suffice to say, though — if you picked up Teaching Comics on my recommendation and enjoyed it, you’re going to absolutely weep with joy while reading this.

But what, exactly, is it? Well, on the one hand it’s exactly what it purports to be — a biography of Rogers’ extraordinary life. On the other, though, it’s something altogether larger and greater, in that it explores the motivations, the philosophy, the achievements and, perhaps most crucially, the influence of Rogers on the children who grew up watching him, as well as those who followed in his wake — not least of whom was Nall himself, who internalized so much of what his hero said and did, and has done his level best to impart his beliefs and teachings and temperament into his own career as an educator. So yes, while this is very much a book about Fred Rogers, it’s every bit as much about what Fred Rogers stood for and how his legacy endures to this day.

Nall’s cartooning is, as always, just gorgeous here — smart, heartfelt, emotive, and perfectly suited to its subject in that, like Rogers himself, his writing and illustrations eschew cynicism almost by their very nature. You know he means everything he says and draws here — right down to the smallest squiggly line. It’s earnest work, to be sure, but not the kind of annoying earnestness that can grate on the nerves. In fact, I would challenge even the most hardened and hateful “alt-right” internet troll to say that there is anything resembling “virtue-signaling” (a favorite buzzword of that crowd) on offer in these pages. Instead, what we are given is something so rare and precious that we almost don’t even recognize it when we see it anymore — pure and unbridled honesty. And that was what Rogers was, I think, all about at his core — giving children the tools to find, express, and celebrate their authentic and honest selves, and to know that they are loved for who they are.

Of course, it’s impossible to divorce any work from the time period in which it is produced and in which one experiences it, so if you’ll forgive me a brief moment’s editorializing, I would say that we need this book — as well as the new documentary film, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — more than ever. Not specifically because of Trump (although Rogers, for my money, represents the absolute antithesis to everything Trump is and represents), but because of the cynicism, despair, intolerance, social and economic insecurity, and outright nihilism that makes the rise of somebody like Trump possible. The society we have become may not deserve a Fred Rogers, but we need him more than ever — and while we may not have him among us anymore, thanks to Alex Nall we have the most succinct and intelligent and endearing and honorable portrayal of him, and everything he meant and still means, that we’re ever likely to have.  This is a book not just to read, to learn from, to admire, but to love. And love it you most assuredly will.

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Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours is self-published and sells for only $12. That’s almost criminal under-pricing for work this brilliant. Order your copy now directly from the cartoonist at http://alexnallcomics.storenvy.com/products/20632205-let-some-word-that-is-heard-be-yours

Cartoonists And Readers Both Can Learn A Lot From Alex Nall’s “Teaching Comics : Volume One”

When no less an authority than legendary indie cartoonist John Porcellino says that a particular book is “as good as comics get,” then said book is clearly worth paying attention to — but also has some very big praise to live up to. Whether that means such a glowing endorsement is actually something of a double-edged I guess I’ll leave to you to determine — shit, if it was my book, I’d take it — but any way you slice it, “as good as comics get” is far more than simple, or even effusive, praise. Indeed, it’s positively glowing.

But, then, so is the book we’re talking about here, Chicago-based cartoonist Alex Nall’s self-published collection Teaching Comics : Volume One. Autobio strips that capture life’s quietly beautiful and poignant moments are nowhere near as “sexy” or “arresting” as autobio confessional stuff, it’s true, but for my money they take far more actual skill — anyone who can draw can give you way too much information about their masturbatory fantasies or their collegiate heartbreaks, after all, but it takes a supremely deft touch to communicate the simple wonder in the accidental wisdom of a child’s statement or the serenity and contentment that comes from walking home along a familiar route without coming off as being overly-precious or cloying. We all love perceptive cartooning (don’t we?), but most of us can do without smarmy sentimentality.

In Nall’s one-page strips he not only gets the balance exactly right, he does so consistently.  His stories about his experiences teaching in the Chicago public school system are charming, insightful, heartwarming, and at times even painfully funny, but never do they insult your intelligence or force their hand. His cartooning is as unassuming and free of pretense as his students, and I’m prepared to go out on a limb and say that takes more than talent, it takes at least a little bit of genius — and that’s a term I like to think I never use lightly.

A good chunk of Nall’s artistic success here comes from the easy-going editorial viewpoint he takes throughout — he’s self-deprecating without being so to a fault, and the end result is a clear and honest look at the daily life of a guy who knows that he’s learning from the kids he interacts with every bit as much as he’s teaching them, and one that suffers from none of the “messiah complex” that sometimes accompanies those who take their responsibility to future generations maybe a little bit too seriously. Nall’s evocative and expressive linework — done in a wonderfully loose and fluid style by means of color markers (!) and ink — suits this “serious but not self-serious” tone to a proverbial “T,” and there’s none of the “disconnect” we sometimes see between subject matter and art that many autobio cartoonists struggle with to one degree or another. This stuff just plain flows.

The longer I go on here the more likely I am to run out of superlatives, so maybe I’ll just cut myself off in a rare display of critical discipline. I racked my brain to try to come up with some quibbles, no matter how small, in this work in order to balance things out at least a tad, but you know what? I’m coming up empty. Nall is a master craftsman and storyteller operating at the absolute peak of his abilities. As very near to a flawless book as you’re going to find — and further proof, as if any were really needed, that John Porcellino always knows what he’s talking about.

The very best thing you can do with that $20 bill in your wallet or pocket or purse right now is to order yourself a copy of Teaching Comics : Volume One directly from the artist at http://alexnallcomics.storenvy.com/products/17023551-teaching-comics-volume-one