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

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.


Are Comic Books Real? is available for $20.00 from Kilgore’s website at

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