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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll wrap things up tomorrow with the TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS list, but until then I’m non-contractually obligated to remind you that all of these columns/round-ups are “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Alex Nall’s “Are Comic Books Real?” Answers Its Own Question

Akex Nall is the best children’s cartoonist working today. And by that I don’t mean he’s the best there is at making comics for children — but it should be noted that his work is, in fact, usually appropriate for all ages — I mean that he’s the best there is at making comics about children.

It’s not that he necessarily draws kids better than anyone else — although his art style is eminently agreeable and firmly rooted in knowledge and understanding of classical technique — no, it’s more that he so clearly understands and empathizes with children on the one hand, while having a kind of quiet reverence for the wide-eyed wonder with which they approach life and the world on the other. He respects kids, values them, and in many ways, I think it’s fair to say, he even envies their outlook. They mystify him, amaze him, at times even frighten him — and I think we can all relate to that, regardless of whether or not we happen to be parents ourselves.

All of this is well and good in Nall’s case in particular because he’s made his living as an arts educator for some years now, and it’s absolutely remarkable the degree to which his teaching work has always informed every line (written or drawn) of his comics work from day one. This running through-line started with Teaching Comics, his series of single-page strips that he later self-published in a collected volume, continued on through Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours (a biographical examination of the life, work, and impact of the late, great Fred Rogers that Nall created long before the “Mr. Rogers Revival” of recent vintage) and Kids With Guns (the most under-appreciated comic of the pandemic era), and now reaches both its apex and, tone one degree or anotehr at least, conclusion with his second Teaching Comics collection, Are Comic Books Real?, released just last month from Kilgore Books. To say it constitutes “more of the same” is undoubtedly true — but I’m rather reminded of another shop-worn cliche that’s even more true, that being “there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing.”

If you’re already familiar with Nall’s work, then, you absolutely will know what to expect here, but it’s my pleasure to report that he just keeps getting better at it, which is why knowing that the book is closing (quite literally) on this particular series is such bittersweet sorrow. Of course I’ll be curious to see what comes next, and consider myself ready to follow this guy to the ends of the Earth at this point, but Nall’s observations of/ruminations on all things childlike are without peer, so it’s not just that you don’t want this collection to come to an end — you don’t want any page of it to come to an end as you’re reading it.

This is perhaps a strange thing to say because these comics are so frank and unpretentious and unassuming, but it’s those very qualities that make them so special. Nall doesn’t seek to tease out or otherwise artificially accentuate moments of disarming poignance, they just happen — and the best part is, of course, that they happen a lot. They’re not only to found in the things that kids say, though — they’re just as often often found in nothing more obtrusive than a change in their expression or body language. It’s the little things, I’m told, that are what make life worth living, but it’s worth remembering that there are no “little things” from a child’s point of view — everything is charged with meaning, import, and significance, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not. This is easy to lose sight of as one ages, of course, but to be reminded of it is, at the risk of sounding grandiose, a gift, and these stories of Nall’s day-to-day interactions with youth are, in a very real sense, a gift that keeps on giving.
Beyond that, I dunno. There’s really not much more that I feel I need to add. No less an authority than John Porcellino has referred to Nall’s comics as being “perfect,” and not only am I not prepared in any way to dispute that, I’ll heartily second it. Are comic books real, then? This one certainly is — as real as it gets.

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Are Comic Books Real? is available for $20.00 from Kilgore’s website at http://www.kilgorebooks.com/shop/are-comic-books-real-alex-nall

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclsuive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Ongoing Series

Rolling right along with our end-of-year surveys, we come to 2020’s Top 10 Ongoing Series. Qualifiers in this category are serialized comics that saw more than one issue or volume released in the past 12 months. Not sure any further explanation beyond that is necessary? And so —

10. Psychodrama Illustrated By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Beto’s latest side-step limited series focuses on somewhat surreal interpretations of the lives of Fritz and her family, resulting in a heady mix of the topical, the trippy and, of course, the libidinal. Familiar faces, unfamiliar places.

9. The Immortal Hulk By Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, et al. (Marvel) – The best “Big Two” series in ages showed no signs of slowing down in 2020, as Ewing interjected political issues and plenty of plot twists into his “long game” storyline, while Bennett continued to wow with richly-illustrated action sequences and uniformly inventive character designs. Where it’s all going no one knows but them, but where it’s already been has, to date, proven to be downright fantastic.

8. Vacuum Decay Edited By Harry Nordlinger (Self-Published) – Premier indie horror cartoonist Nordlinger is a guy with a vision, and in his new anthology series he invites others to the party to broaden it out, resulting in an intriguing blend of talents both old and new, all telling punchy, short-form tales of terror that delight in subverting conventions and norms without ever disrespecting them.

7. The Lighthouse In The City By Karl Christian Krumpholz (Self-Published) – Few cartoonists, if any, have made more productive use of their time in quarantine than Denver’s Krumpholz, who started this project looking to make diary comics about his wife’s then-upcoming surgery and her attendant recovery, and ended up documenting, for lack of a better tern, “The Full 2020 Experience.” As real and immediate as comics get.

6. Kids With Guns By Alex Nall (Self-Published) – What first began as a rather touching story about the inter-generational friendship between two neighbors has evolved into a taut but understated thriller of sorts that examines any number of pitfalls and challenges facing today’s youth with wit, wisdom, and grace. I can’t imagine Nall will have any trouble finding a publisher for the collected edition of this once all is said and done.

5. Love And Rockets By Gilbert And Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Another strong year for a series that seems to be experiencing a creative resurgence of sorts since returning to its original magazine format with Jaime, in particular, turning in some of the most compelling work of his illustrious career. For those of us of a certain age, these guys got us through our adolescence and our young adulthood, and they’re doing much the same now that we — and their characters — navigate middle age.

4. Now Edited By Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics) – A very nice bounce-back year for the increasingly-infrequent anthology, and who knows? Maybe that increasing infrequency is the key to its success. After padding his pages with substandard and reprinted material last year, editor Reynolds is once again commissioning almost entirely strong original work, and presenting it in a format — and at a price — that makes “art comics” accessible to the general reading public. One big blemish emerged at the end of the year in terms of his choices that calls his thinking, and perhaps even his judgment, into question, but this isn’t the place to go into all that.

3. Tinfoil Comix Edited By Floyd Tangeman (Dead Crow) – This one came out of left field this past year and hit me like a ton of bricks, as it represents the kind of thing so many of us are always looking for : a collection of unique and idiosyncratic strips largely done by cartoonists you’ve more than likely never heard of before. There’s a real underground sensibility at work here, a kind of “anything goes” philosophical approach that results in every page holding the promise of something new and unexpected — and usually delivering.

2. Ex. Mag Edited By Wren McDonald (Peow Studio) – A conceptually-innovative new deluxe anthology series with a rotating genre theme — Cyberpunk and Paranormal Romance anchoring the first and second volumes, respectively — has proven itself to be precisely the tonic world-weary readers have needed in this year unlike any other, and why not? This is a comic unlike any other, and with its “expiration date” built in from the start one gets the distinct sense of this being a work that is being carefully cultivated to both reflect the concerns of the here and now while also standing the test of time. “Where comics are going” is here now.

1. Future By Tommi Musturi (Boing Being) – Dazzling both in its array of styles and its top-flight production values, the planet’s most versatile cartoonist is here crafting a tapestry and a puzzle box at the same time, depicting diverse future worlds that are somehow all connected, somehow all real — and somehow, paradoxically, all self-aware of their own fictitiousness. It’s hard to say what we’re getting more of here, imagination or talent, but what’s certain is that both are combining to create something that bears all the hallmarks of being, I kid you not, one of the best comics of all time once everything is said and done.

Two lists down, four to go! I’ll be back with the Top 10 Special Mentions in the next day or two!

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Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53” in its modern “Blackout Edition” variant.

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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.