Creativity While “Isolated”

When we look on things a few years from now (assuming we make it that far), there’s a damn good chance that 2020 will be seen as a turning point for small press, self-published, and otherwise independent comics. Not only did we have the “heavy hitters” like Simon Hanselmann’s Crisis Zone and Alex Graham’s Dog Biscuits, we had diary comics galore from any number of cartoonists, as well as a smattering of “lockdown”-themed anthologies — artists, like the rest of us, were looking for anything to keep them sane while they were (by and large) stuck indoors, and new (predominantly digital) distribution methods were utilized, both by choice and necessity, to get their work out there. In many ways, sure, it seems like only yesterday, but in others it seems like a lifetime ago, so completely has the landscape shifted. And the changes to production and distribution that the pandemic engendered have proven to be every bit as resilient as has COVID-19 itself, really — I mean, how many comics are you reading on Instagram these days? I bet it’s more than you were in 2019.

I was somewhat surprised, then, to receive in the mail recently a handsomely-produced little anthology called Isolated, edited and published by Tana Oshima and featuring work produced primarily (with some exceptions) during the “height” of the lockdowns, that is available only in printed form. This is not a complaint, mind you — I made mention of Instagram comics a moment ago, but the truth is I don’t even have an Instagram account myself and prefer to keep things as “old school” as is humanly possible. I’m well aware, however, of what’s happening in the digital comics realm in a general sense, and so the idea of a a collection of pandemic-themed strips that bucks the trends and stays with the tried-and-true is inherently appealing to a stick in the mud such as myself — and even more importantly, so are the comics that Oshima is presenting here.

Of course, how could they not be given the veritable “murder’s row” of international talent she’s managed to put together? Roll call, in order of appearance : Celine Hudreaux on covers, with interior stories by Pedro Pablo Bacallao, E.A. Bethea, Angela Fanche, Ana Galvan, Jessica Garcia, November Garcia, Ness Ilene Garza, Marie Gilot, Kim Lam, Drew Lerman, Lui Mort, Roman Muradov, Hue Nguyen, Weng Pixin, Areeba Siddique, and Lane Yates. Veteran readers of my blathering will no doubt recognize many a cartoonist I’ve sung the praises of included in this list of luminaries, but there are a handful of names that I admit were new to me here as well, and lo and behold, they contribute some of the strongest entries in the book, so that admittedly shop-worn “something old, something new” axiom with regards to putting together a successful anthology? It absolutely rings true in this case.

Everyone is given four pages to work with (apart from Galvan, who only uses two), and as one would expect, pretty much all these strips are autobiographical in nature, but even the ones that aren’t in form are in spirit, given the same thing was resting heavy on everybody’s shoulders all over the world at the time — which rather brings me to my main point here : expect a uniquely unpleasant and harrowing reading experience with this as you look back on a time that absolutely no one is nostalgic for. These are all cartoonists operating at the full height of their considerable powers, so that semi-apocalyptic sense of dread we all felt in 2020? You’re gonna feel it all over again. It hangs over all in Sword of Damocles fashion, even in the strips with a nominally “lighter” tone. So if you’re understandably not yet ready to go down that road, while I’d still strongly urge you to get this book — after all, who knows how many copies are even out there — I’d likewise advise that you put it aside until you really feel up to it. Please. For your own sake.

Speaking for myself (because that’s the only person I’m remotely qualified to speak for in the first place), the predominant sensation this collection evoked in me was the strange dichotomy of those times — we were all going through the same thing, but since we were separated, we all experienced and processed it in highly personal ways. It didn’t help, I suppose, that politics did its level best to wrest control of the situation from science — and I’ll always find it as tragic as it was predictable that the same assholes who lectured us about “coming together” in the wake of 9/11 so they could pursue bloodthirsty and profit-driven wars of conquest abroad were the ones telling us to piss in the face of unity during the lockdowns — but by and large the very nature of isolation itself gave rise to myriad interpretations of both what the lockdowns meant and how best to navigate them. This book, by dint of the wide range of distinctive voices it presents, captures the essence of what it means to individually experience a collective nightmare.

Also worth noting : thanks to the efforts of Oshima and her predecessor on the project Andrew Losowsky, grant funding was secured so that all of the contributors were paid for their efforts — and we all remember how vital that was at the time. You can feel good about buying this comic, then, even if it’s not a “feel-good” collection per se — it is, however, a vital and necessary one, as well as a testament to art’s ability to help us get through the roughest of rough times.

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Isolated is available for $12.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/isolated.html

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

Happy Meal Time Machine : Ana Galvan’s “Afternoon At McBurger’s”

Clocking in at a lean and mean 64 pages, Spanish cartoonist Ana Galvan’s latest, Afternoon At McBurger’s (originally published in 2020 as Tarde En McBurger’s, coming soon in a hardback English-language edition from Fantagraphics with translation by Jamie Richards) packs a tremendous conceptual wallop cleverly hidden within the trappings of a fairly breezy narrative. Inventively structured, meticulously rendered, and lavishly adorned with a riso-friendly color palette, it’s an auteur work in every sense of the term, a comic that could have been made by no one other than its creator. It’s also, and I say this with nothing but respect, a rather deft extended sleight-of-hand trick.

Which is to say, if laid out in strictly linear fashion, it would probably be a bit too obvious for its own good on the whole, but the mark of any visionary is to assemble things in a manner that reflects their own point of view, and often that involves presenting readers with a new take on fairly standard storytelling tropes. I mean, time travel narratives are nearly as old as time itself, and this is hardly the first occasion in which they’ve been utilized within the confines of what could broadly be termed “YA” fiction, but what Galvan is concerned with more than the nuts and bolts of the brief glimpses of the future the girls in her story are “gifted” with is the implications these “life spoilers” have on them in the here and now — and, on the other side of the coin, she’s also exploring by default how the mindsets of the youngsters’ here and now selves shape their perceptions of who they will become.

Not that the here and now of her comic is necessarily our own here and now, mind you — unless you know of fast food joints that run time travel lotteries for kids (appropriately termed “Once Parties”) or people who have little egg-shaped household robot servitors — but at its core the character of this world and its de facto social order is at least as familiar as it is exotic. Again, Galvan’s real skill lies in presenting the tried and true through a set of eyes that makes it all seem fresh bordering on the revelatory. And, in that sense, it’s not unfair to describe this as a pastel-hued rumination on the nature of adolescence itself, a coming-of-age fable for the first generation to have their lives directly impacted by AI algorithms from cradle to grave — even if that’s a gross oversimplification of things on its face. Loss of wonder and innocence and egalitarianism is still a part of growing up, but the effects of those losses have broader implications these days than they once did in that they’re now every bit as technologically based as they are biologically and socially. And while the corporate overlords of McBurger’s aren’t cruel enough to show the “winners” of their contest the steps and stages that will lead to the futures they’re temporarily dropped into, even a quick look at how things are going turn out for you will necessarily effect how a person goes about their lives in the present.

So, yeah — there’s a hell of a lot to consider when reading this comic, and Galvan’s layered, multi-faceted approach to telling it results in something of a narrative “onion” that reveals new layers beneath each one that readers peels away. Again, it’s not so much a confusing or convoluted approach as it is an inherently clever one, and while that’s undoubtedly deliberate, it’s to the cartoonist’s great credit that she’s not out to wow you with her ingenuity — she’s simply following her own artistic instincts, and that’s still the both the best and most honest way to make art in the first place.

Anyone who’s read Galvan’s previous Fanta-published work, the 2019 short story collection Press Enter To Continue, will recognize this new book as being very much “of a piece,” both thematically and aesthetically, with its predecessor, but don’t take that to mean she’s resting on her laurels and simply staking out familiar territory. While it’s true that she isn’t expanding her approach per se, she’s doing something every bit as important : refining it, sharpening it, and deepening it. She’s clearly got a very specific — and unique — methodology, as well as a very particular set of concerns and a very unorthodox prism through which she views them, but I don’t see that, at least to this point, as limiting the scope of her imagination in any way. In fact, I defy anyone to read both books in one go and not be utterly convinced that she’s finding both her her voice and her footing remarkably quickly and that her best work is probably yet to come.

But hey, what the hell do I know? I mean, it’s not like I can see the future or anything. In the present, though, I think it’s entirely fair to say that Ana Galvan is proving to be one of the most intriguing and exciting emerging talents in comics.

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Afternoon At McBurger’s is slated for release on December 7th, 2022, and can be pre-ordered from the Fantagraphics website at https://www.fantagraphics.com/collections/coming-soon/products/afternoon-at-mcburgers

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

Eurocomics Spotlight : Ana Galvan’s “Press Enter To Continue”

Running a stylistic gamut that incorporates everything from Manga to Art Deco to THX 1138 to Black Mirror, Spanish cartoonist Ana Galvan’s English-language debut, Press Enter To Continue — recently published in agreeably sleek and slender hardback format by Fantagraphics — is probably the most HONEST comic in at least semi-recent memory, using an economy of words and minimalist linework to make a bold statement on where we are as a society and where we’re going. It’s both “of the moment” and prescient at once, and immediately establishes Galvan as an auteur in the truest sense, to wit : someone with a singular message and a singular method of presenting and communicating it.
Formally inventive page layouts with a tight internal logic and a fluidity that’s as easy to grasp as it is completely unique mark this as an innovative work even before the pastel color palette, infused with eye-catching geometric design work, is added into the mix as a final touch, and given that we’re talking about a series of thematically and narratively intertwined vignettes set in a near future extrapolated entirely from events and trends already extant in today’s techno-riddled society, a self-contained, even hermetically sealed, visual language is essential when it comes to making the universal the personal, and perhaps even vice-versa. Our descent into a transhumanist hell may be taken as a given by some — perhaps even many — but here Galvan makes the problem look and feel as immediate, as urgent, as it no doubt is.
In Galvan’s version of, to quote Kirby, “the world that’s coming!,” data mining takes on a physical proportionality commensurate with its booming market capitalization, “human” resources departments are deployed in service of tasks that live up to their Orwellian name, corporate overlordship is silently acknowledged as the all-powerful force it’s been for decades already, and externally-transmitted suicidal ideation is the newest form of population control. And while her stories look like something 20 years ahead of their time, none of them particularly read as being at all far-fetched in any way, shape, or form.
Are you scared yet? Of course you are, and likely have been for a good, long time. But it never hurts to remember that fact, nor to acknowledge why.
Alienation from the self and its most basic needs and desires in order to sell them back to us in corrupted and ultimately empty form and keep us yearning for more has always been capitalism’s central project — the captains of industry take away human sexuality and sell us back pornography ; rob us of actual community and offer up a pale for-profit approximation of it via “social” media — but herein the hustle is made plain, and taken to its logical extremes. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here, and all that — but rest easy, for an entirely-unattainable artificial semblance of it is ever and always just a click, and a credit card payment, away. What you want? Baby, they go it.
Which isn’t to say that Press Enter To Continue is a fundamentally dystopian work — on the contrary, it’s something far more chilling than that. It operates under the depressingly accurate presumption that the dystopia is already upon us, and offers a series of road maps to its inevitable end points. Whether or not it’s the most memorable comic of the year is open to debate —although I’ll go on record right now as saying it very well might be — but to date it’s likely the most important one.
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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. In fact, it’s more than that — it’s taken from said Patreon site. And no, I promise, this isn’t just me being lazy.
You see, my friends, in an effort to gin up interest in said project, I’m offering a handful of “free previews” of the goings-on there, so if you like what you’ve read here, please do me a favor and direct your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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

After this, we’ve got two year-end lists to go — but we haven’t even done this one yet, so perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. My definition of “contemporary” collections is anything published from the year 2000 right up to the present day, and while many of the books that follow may very well fit your — or even my — definition of a “graphic novel,” the fact is that if they were originally published as serialized works, either in comics titles of their own or as part of anthologies, or if the strips presented in these books were culled from sources various and sundry, then this is the category they fall into by my entirely-unofficial rules. And with that, away we go —

10. The Sleep Gas By Chris Cajero Cilla (Fantagraphics Underground) – The spiritual successor to the likes of Doug Allen and Gary Leib, this welcome collection of Cilla’s often tough-to-find short works showcases precisely what he does best, namely crafting tales that are set in a world (or worlds) that are agonizingly familiar yet altogether alien, charming in the extreme but not without an element of the eerie to them. One of comics’ truly idiosyncratic talents who never produces anything less than “must-read” material, so yeah — this is a “must-read” book.

9. Rust Belt By Sean Knickerbocker (Secret Acres) – Nobody has their finger on the pulse of “flyover country” quite like Knickerbocker, and this slim but powerful collection showcases the best of his self-published series, introducing us to the dead end communities full of dead end jobs and dead end lives that find their only release valves via alcohol, opioids, crystal meth, and right-wing political demagogues. Read it and weep, but read it you most definitely should.

8. Rooftop Stew By Max Clotfelter (Birdcage Bottom Books) – It’s about goddamn time. Long one of the funniest, grossest, and most honest cartoonists around, Clotfelter can do everything from post-apocalyptic mutant humor strips to painfully resonant dysfunctional family autobio, and this collection is as seriously overdue as it is seriously amazing.

7. The Follies Of Richard Wadsworth By Nick Maandag (Drawn+Quarterly) – Nobody makes you laugh and squirm uncomfortably at the same time quite like Maandag, and his latest features everything from would-be college professors oblivious to their numerous and painfully obvious shortcomings to randy monks out to “enlighten” their co-ed monastery via decidedly earthly methods. Quite possibly the year’s funniest comic, yet painful to sit through in its own unique way at the same time.

6. Kramers Ergot 10 Edited By Sammy Harkham (Fantagraphics) – The venerable anthology returns in a generously oversized format and with an eclectic mix of the old and the new — from Frank King to R. Crumb to Kim Deitch to Anna Haifisch, it’s a tour through comics’ history and present. The single-strongest entry may come from editor Harkham himself, though, who provides a side-step to his long-running “Blood Of The Virgin” serial that actually turns out to be downright essential. There’s some questionable inclusions in here, sure, but if this turns out to be the end of the road for this title as has been rumored, then it’s definitely leaving on a high note.

5. The Anthology Of Mind By Tommi Musturi (Fantagraphics) – A truly gorgeous and equally truly subversive collection from one of the most multi-faceted talents in comics today, presenting everything from surrealist abstraction to lush painting to computerized pixelation to precise realism, all in service of narrative or non-narrative subject matter that’s never quite what you think it is — to the extent that you can even go into any given strip in this book with a preconceived idea, prepare for it to be dispensed with quickly and replaced with something altogether more wonderful and mysterious.

Image result for tad martin lulu

4. The Tad Martin Omnibus Edition By Casanova Frankenstein (Spook City/Lulu) – Okay, yes, including this one may be a bit of a “cheat” since the material it presents goes all the way back to the early ’90s, but the strongest section of the book is Frankenstein’s already-legendary #sicksicksix issue from just a few years ago, so —leave it to this one to defy my category classifications as easily as it defies just about anything and everything else. An exercise in constant re-invention, having this entire series (minus its just-published seventh installment) bound together in one volume is a gift from the cartooning gods that none of us deserve. Well and truly beneath the underground.

3. Glenn Ganges In : The River At Night By Kevin Huizenga (Drawn+Quarterly) – Springboarding off simple — or not so simple — insomnia, formalist master Huizenga takes us on a visually and thematically spectacular tour of consciousness, time, and everything it means to be a joyously, deliriously imperfect being. His finest outing with his stand-in protagonist yet, this is a clinic in how to engage audiences with the “heaviest” of topics while alienating or intimidating absolutely no one.

2. Press Enter To Continue By Ana Galvan (Fantagraphics) – Limning the entirety of the shape of things to come, Galvan’s all-too-plausible speculative strips combine innovate geometric design work, boldly incongruous color choices, corporate ownership of humans down to the cellular level, and the data-mining of consciousness itself to present a visually marvelous dystopia that’s as impossible to stop looking at as it is terrifying to consider.

1. Alienation By Ines Estrada (Fantagraphics) – A bold yet subtle exploration of what it means to be human in the digital age, Estrada’s rich graphite illustration looks even more gorgeous presented in the blue ink of this collected edition than it did in the black-and-white single issues, and the color “correction” also adds an extra emotive touch to what is both the most compelling comics love story in some time and a monumental and exhaustively-thought-through exercise in “world-building” — yet for all its narrative and visual sophistication, this book retains the core punk/DIY attitude and aesthetics that its creator is justly lauded for. Brimming with confidence as well as singularity of purpose and vision, this is an instant modern classic of the medium.

Up net we’ve got the top ten special mentions of the year, which is the category for all “comics adjacent” works, but until then please 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. It’s the best value going in original online writing and hey, it at least helps yours truly with a little beer money, so do check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse