As we trudge on with our year-end review, we come next to a category that’s fairly easy to explain : TOP TEN COMICS SERIES refers to any ongoing or limited comic book series that saw more than one issue released in the past calendar year. As you’re about to see, anthologies — both solo and multi-creator — ruled the roost in 2021, a trend I’d be most happy to see continue. But we’ll worry about that in the future, for now here are my personal picks for best comics series in the present :
10. Bubblegum Maelstrom By Ryan Alves (Awe Comics) – Alves just plain tore it up in 2021, producing two issues of this now-concluded solo anthology title, the last of which was an 80-plus-page monster. Fitting, I suppose, given that monstrosity itself was a core concern of so many of the strips in this series. Bu turns grotesque and exquisite, sometimes both, Alves really went for the conceptual jugular with this comic, and I’m more than anxious to see what he does next.
9. Flop Sweat By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom) – Don’t you dare say memoir is dead until you’re read this. Ward’s autobio series is harrowing, heartfelt, sometimes even humorous — but never less than painfully honest. When the abyss that gazes back is your own life, and you can still make compelling art from that? You’ve got guts to match your skills. Never doubt Ward’s abundance of both.
8. Love And Rockets By Gilbert And Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – If you find a best-of list that this title isn’t on, you’ve found yourself one lazy-ass critic. Or a stupid one. Down a few spots from where I normally place it simple because, sorry to say, Beto’s current stuff isn’t registering with me to the degree it usually does, but hey — Jaime is continuing to produce some of the best comics of his career.
7. Vacuum Decay, Edited By Harry Nordlinger (Self-Published) – The most uncompromising underground horror anthology in decades continued to push the envelope with issue three — and with issue four, it just plain wiped its ass with it. To quote my own tweet back at me (speaking of lazy critics) : this is a comic that goes there. Whether you want to go with it or not, well — that’s your call. I know I’m down for the ride.
4. Acid Nun By Corinne Halbert (Self-Published) – Psychedelic cosmic interdimensional Satanic nunspolitation with a generous helping of BDSM fetishism not just on the side, but front and center? Sign me the fuck up for that any day, and when you factor in Halbert’s astonishing compositions and use of color what you’ve got is one of the most visually literate comics of the year as well as probably the most deliciously pervy. Plenty to turn your crank whether you’re gay, straight, somewhere in between, or completely undecided, but there’s something more going on here than erotic stimulation for its own sake (not that there’s anything wrong with that) — if you appreciate a cartoonist who’s clearly playing a “long game” of stimulating you libidinally as foreplay to stimulating you intellectually, you’ve come to the right place.
3 Future By Tommi Musturi (Self-Published) – A web that draws you in by continuing to expand outward, Musturi’s various (and variously-styled) narratives never cease to impress, even as they bob and weave between confounding and illuminating. Everything is building toward something here — a conceptual singularity, at least, and perhaps even a narrative one —but I’m enjoying the individual journeys far too much to be ready for a destination yet. It doesn’t get much more unique than this, folks — a series you already miss before it’s even over.
2. Reptile House, Edited By (I’m Assuming Here) Nick Bunch (Reptile House Comix) – Created and published by a de facto artistic collective out of Philly, this is exhibit B for my contention that locally-focused anthologies are the future of comics. A heady mix of long-form continuing narratives and hilariously visceral one-offs, 99% of the cartoonists appearing in these pages are folks that I’ve never heard of before, but their work — like this series itself — just gets stronger and stronger as it goes on. And they wrapped up an already amazingly strong year with a killer 3-D issue. This is grassroots comics-making the way you remember it — and the way you’ve never seen it before.
Next up we’ll do the “grab-bag” category that is TOP TEN SPECIAL MENTIONS, but in the meantime please consider helping me crank out more of this kind of theoretically enjoyable content by subscribing to my Patreon, 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. Here’s a link : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse
At the risk of sounding grandiose, Austin English is a bit of a renaissance man in the truest sense of that term — through his utterly unique cartooning, his publishing efforts with Domino Books, his eclectic comics distribution service (I number myself among its regular customers), his position as editor of the must-read ‘zine But Is It — Comic Aht?, and his new wholesale venture, he’s one of the people most responsible for pushing this medium we all love forward in no small way. I recently had the chance to converse with him about where his various and sundry projects came from, where they’re at now, and where they’re going —
Four Color Apocalypse : For readers who may not be aware of Domino, what was the impetus behind its creation, and how long has it been a going concern now?
Austin English : I started Domino in 2011. The reason for starting it is pretty much the same reason I continue to do it: there’s so much work in comics that gets written off as ‘weird,’ or ‘not really comics,’ or ‘is this even a comic?,’ or (my absolute least favorite) ‘artsy’. These terms really do a disservice to cartooning, as they are used to describe work that, in any other medium, is pretty normal or commonplace. Comics, for whatever reason, resists even basic modernism…and maybe this is what continues to allow it to be vital. It’s still very pure, in a way. I’m a huge fan of the most simplistic, by the book, basic storytelling comics, that’s a part of the medium that I’ll never let go of in my heart. It has huge, obvious merits. But there are other approaches to comics storytelling besides the most dominant one that are of value, that move people and that serve a function in people’s lives. And there is so much of this kind of work. It only seems to be ‘not really comics’ because it’s always maligned or outright ignored by most comics institutions.
I think, on a fundamental level, this is bad business. Comics people tend to think that readers only accept a certain kind of comics, and most institutions define themselves as providing either the trash of that kind of comic, or the high end of that kind of comic. I think that’s underestimating readers and alienating a huge potential audience. So…with Domino, my task at the beginning was to group a lot of uncommon comics together, to make a statement, to treat this work with dignity. To readers and artists, the value of this work has always been clear, but they’ve been left with few options to either express themselves or to simply read. I think it took close to a decade for this statement to get digested beyond people that already got it, even in some small fashion. But ten years after founding Domino, I think it’s making some sense, albeit in a very minor way.
4CA : Do you view your role along the lines of that of an “acquisitions editor,” or do you view yourself as purely a distributor? In other words, if a comic that doesn’t meet certain aesthetic criteria — however arbitrary they may be — is sent your way, would you still be willing to distribute it? On a related note, and I’m certainly not asking you to single anything out by name here, but have you ever distributed a comic that you think has literary and/or artistic merit that you don’t personally like?
AE : Running the Domino store and the new wholesale operation are going to be very different. I’m not so invested in what I personally like. I don’t think that’s so interesting and I think people involved in any kind of curation have to get over that. With the store, I try to plug in anything that feels undeniable to me, in the sense that it’s something that is an honest expression. I may not connect with it, but as long as there isn’t a heavy dose of cynicism, it’s an undeniable component of current comics. It’s important to include work like that, because once you do, more people who you’re unaware of (or your own tastes aren’t ready for yet) will submit their work, slowly changing a store that could have been your own simplistic vision into something much larger and more interesting.
But with the wholesale venture, I’m limited at the outset in terms of storage space, because I’m amassing these books in bulk. So, I’m trying to make a distilled offering of all the different parts of the store as I start out, something that I think will work well for adventurous retailers. If everything works out and I can afford to maybe rent some space to house more comics at some point down the line, then the wholesale catalog can hopefully be as wide ranging as the store itself.
4CA : What do you see as the biggest challenges facing small press and/or self-publishing cartoonists in terms of getting their work in front of a larger audience?
AE : I really think it’s lack of readership. Even if an independent artist gets picked up by a great publisher, there just isn’t the audience to make a book worked on for years and years profitable enough so that the artist can sustain themselves from being a cartoonist alone. There are obvious exceptions, but probably enough to count on one hand. I don’t think publishers are lazy, I don’t think retailers are lazy, and I certainly don’t think the artists are. But there’s a disconnect between all three entities in connecting with the crucial other group: readers. I don’t think Diamond helps with this but I don’t think bookstore distributors are much better. The comic direct marker and the bookstore market are pretty hostile to personal work in general, let alone formally challenging personal work. Readers, in my experience with Domino, are actually hungry for this stuff. It’s just a question of getting it in front of them and giving them a chance. Without that connection to readers, even the most brilliant cartoonists are just going to keep printing ever diminishing runs of their work and the audience will contract once again.
If there is a way to expand readership, it needs to be explored. Domino has maybe expanded readership for certain artists by…20 people? That’s not going to change things much. But if there’s a way to bring bookstores in and have people encounter this work outside of the internet bubble that’s aware of these things already, that could be helpful. And if ten people besides myself, John P. and a few others work on these things, that’d be a good start.
4CA : With you broadening out into the wholesale market, will Domino continue to function as a publishing entity as well, or do time concerns necessitate your scaling back publishing operations a bit in order to make sure this new venture is successful?
AE : No, if anything, I want to publish more now. I think so much of comics (again, not counting the artists and readers) is contracting away from the kind of work Domino is most interested in. I think now’s the time to flood the market with as much challenging work as possible, since there’s anything but a glut of non-commercial comics right now.
4CA : On an unrelated note, your first book-length comic is a good few years is due out soon. What can you tell readers about MESKIN AND UMEZO without tipping your hand too much?
AE : The printer proofs just came in today and I’m excited to approve them tomorrow morning. I really can’t wait to send out copies to everyone who pre-ordered it. I worked on this for four years and I hate summarizing what it’s about, but : I drew it in such a way as to let two characters talk to each other and shift the narrative based on what they say page by page. After the first two years of working on it, I latched on to a strain of conversation that really meant something to me, and went back and redrew the first half of the book for another year and a half to re-congeal that thread of dialogue. I think, in the end, it becomes an exchange between these two characters that I couldn’t have written in any other way except as a comic with these specific drawings. I just want it to be in the mail and heading to peoples’ houses. Publishing it through Domino means a hell of a lot to me. If only I’d made the paper it’s printed on myself, all the way from pulp to printed page…then it’d really be something. But I’m not that crazy.
4CA : And finally, in an ideal word, where do you see Domino in five years’ time? What would you like to see continue and what would you like to see change, both in terms of your own publishing and distribution operations specifically, and in the broader independent or “alternative” comics market in general?
AE : I want Domino to remain a store where any kind of expression can have some connection to readers and I want the wholesale operation to work out so that there’s an option to get that kind of expression to people who aren’t already part of the choir, people who need to stumble upon that kind of thing by chance. Lots of people do need that. I think comics right now has so many artists and readers who have a lot to exchange with each other, a lot of contact to be made. I don’t think there’s anything in life that I value more than interacting with people through their art. But I’m not sure if comics as a whole right now serves that necessary function as well as it could. It feels like a crucial moment, where things could unfortunately get even more corporatized than they are already. There are so many good people working behind the scenes in comics who continue to perform one of the hardest tasks imaginable: getting work that has a real function and real worth into readers’ lives. If Domino can play any role in being an instrument for that to happen, then that’s what I want it to be doing in five years.
Thank you, Austin, for your time and thoughtful responses! Please find more from and about Austin and Domino at the following sites :
We’re inching closer to being done with our monstrous year-end wrap, and with this, our next-to-last list, we’ll be taking a look at my top ten “special mentions” — that is, projects that have to do with comics, or are by cartoonists, but aren’t precisely comics per se in and of themselves. The term I settled on some time back was “comics-adjacent” works, and until something better comes to mind, I’m sticking with it. And so —
10. Folrath #3 By Zak Sally (La Mano 21) – The third and final “volume” of Sally’s riso-printed prose memoir of his life on the social, economic, and cultural margins in the early 1990s ably demonstrates that he’s every bit as gifted a writer as he is a cartoonist. I hated to see this end, but loved every page of it.
9. Bubbles #4 Edited By Brian Baynes (Self-Published) – Baynes came out of nowhere this year and started cranking out the best solo old-school ‘zine in recent memory, but with number four he brought in a small handful of contributors who all turned in exemplary work, and his interview subjects included one of my favorite of the “new crop” of indie cartoonists, Josh Pettinger, and long-time favorite Archer Prewitt, so this gets the nod as the best issue to date. Long may this project continue.
8. 2016-1960 By Jeff Zenick (Self-Published) – The ever-idiosyncratic Zenick’s latest illustration ‘zine presents a fascinating visual case study of changing social trends and customs via hand-rendered interpretations of high school and college yearbook portrait photos. Compelling and engrossing and maybe even a little bit wistful at the margins, this tells a strong story without resorting to so much as a single line of dialogue.
7. But Is It — Comic Aht? #2 Edited By Austin English And August Lipp (Domino Books) English and Lipp follow up a terrific debut issue issue with an even better sophomore effort, covering everything from EC to Anna Haifisch to weird 1990s kids’ comics to David Tea. Full disclosure : I’ve got a piece in this ‘zine, but it would have earned this spot easily regardless.
6. Crows By Jenny Zervakis (Self-Published) – A gorgeous but harrowing mix of prose and illustration that limns the collapse of a twenty-year marriage and the complete re-think of one’s life that goes along with it. As always, Zervakis finds a reason to go on via her love for nature — and nobody draws it better than she does.
5. Steve Gerber : Conversations Edited By Jason Sacks, Eric Hoffman, And Dominick Grace (University Press Of Mississippi) – The latest book in the long-running “Conversations With Comic Artists” series is also one of the best, presenting a career-spanning retrospective series of interviews with one of the most gifted writers and “far-out” thinkers in the history of the medium. If we see a “Gerber revival” of sorts in the future — and we damn well should — we can all point back to this as its starting point.
4. Bill Warren : Empire Of Monsters By Bill Schelly (Fantagraphics) – What turned out, sadly, to be the final project authored by noted comics and fandom historian Schelly was also one of his best, chronicling the life and times of the visionary publisher who brought the world everything from Famous Monsters to Blazing Combat. You hear the term “impossible to put down” a lot — this book really is just that.
3. Forlorn Toreador By E.A. Bethea (Self-Published) – The latest (and likely greatest, but hey — they’re all good) ‘zine from the endlessly creative Bethea is a poetic exploration of times, places, and people gone that utilizes an intuitively- assembled mixture of comics, prose, and portrait illustration to paint a picture of the world as it both was and is. You’ll miss reading it before it’s even over.
2. Brain Bats Of Venus : The Life And Comics Of Basil Wolverton Volume Two, 1942-1952 By Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics) – The second entry in Sadowski’s exhaustive biography of one of comics’ most legendary iconoclasts is painstakingly researched, engagingly written, and loaded with archival documents and well over a dozen fully-restored Wolverton stories that have never looked better. Somebody’s looking down on this “labor of love” project and smiling.
1. Loop Of The Sun By Daria Tessler (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – An ancient Egyptian myth of creation is brought to kaleidoscopic, phantasmagoric life in Tessler’s mixed-media masterpiece, a culmination of everything this visionary artist has been building up to in recent years. The most visually ambitious work to ever come out of a riso printer — and the most gorgeous book you’ll purchase this year.
Next up, we’ll wrap up our year-end review with a look at my choices for the top ten original graphic novels of 2019, 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. I make sure you get great value for your money, have no fear on that score, so do give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse
Fuck the internet. Once upon a time, if you wanted to get your thoughts on any given random-ass subject (say, for instance, comics) out there to a tiny sliver of the public, you had to go to the trouble of writing ’em down, constructing them into articles, essays, or at least rants, designing and laying out pages, selecting and/or commissioning illustrations, and then slapping everything between two covers and actually publishing what you’d come up with.
It took guts. It took determination. It took commitment. And it took cash that most ‘zine creators were sorely lacking. Fortunately, some folks still refuse the “easy out” offered by digital and continue to produce these labors of genuine love. For this week’s Round-Up column, I thought I’d draw attention to some notable recent examples —
Mineshaft #36 is the latest issue of Everett Rand and Gioia Palimieri’s long-running, idiosyncratic, expertly-curated (a term I usually avoid at all costs, but it really does apply here) small-press publication featuring a selection of illustrations, poems, correspondence, and personal observations/essays. Rand and Palmieri are essentially continuing a long-form conversation with their small-but-loyal readership at this point, who have come to expect nothing but the best both in terms of content and production values from this indefatigable, hand-crafted ‘zine. Mainstay contributor R. Crumb provides gorgeous covers this time out, with interior contents courtesy of a “murderer’s row” of counter-cultural talent including Justin Green, Billy Childish, Mary Fleener, David Collier, Noah Van Sciver, Denis Kitchen, and many others. A true artisan publication, well worth its $9 asking price and then some. Find out more by heading on over to : https://mineshaftmagazine.com/store.html
The Tiny Report #5 continues editor/publisher Robyn Chapman’s welcome trend of getting better and more ambitious with each issue, and while the exhaustive fold-out chart that is her annual “Micro-Press Yearbook” is something to behold, for this critic the highlights this time out were the interviews with one of the best cartoonists alive, Eleanor Davis, and one of the most disturbing and original cartoonists of all time, Mike Diana. Tons of mini-comic reviews round out the impressive package, but seriously — these are two of the best Q&A’s offered up anywhere in recent memory. $6 is a steal for anything this superb, so order one up at http://thetinyreport.storenvy.com/products/23781330-tiny-report-no-5
But Is It — Comic Aht? #1 is a newcomer to the fold, courtesy of our old friend, editor/publisher Austin English, and his Domino Books imprint. If the return of The Comics Journal to print felt a bit underwhelming to you, rest easy — this ‘zine has you covered, and it’s a lot cheaper. A career-spanning interview with the great (and sadly under-appreciated) Megan Kelso was my favorite thing in this debut issue, but a personal exploration of the Mexican indie comics scene by Ines Estrada was another standout contribution in a publication that, frankly, features nothing but. I’m working on an interview with cartoonist David Tea for the second issue, but until then you can get the first for the ridiculously low sum of $5 from http://dominobooks.org/comicaht1.html
The Holland Report #3 is probably the most specialized book under our metaphorical microscope this week, a true throwback in terms of both style, content, and format to the fanzines of yesteryear courtesy of publisher John Boylan, whose love for the venerable DC muck-monster known as Swamp Thing knows no bounds. In fact, he tosses in a fan club membership card and button with each order. Unseen Swampy sketches from one of his most beloved artists, Stephen Bissette, a terrific interview with arguably the most under-valued writer to ever work on the book, the great Nancy A. Collins, a mind-bendingly thorough look at the early history of John Constantine, and lots of cool fan art make this a sensational value at $10. Boyland and his collaborators are true fans and this is a true fan publication. Get more details at https://rootsoftheswampthing.com/hollandfiles/
The independent comics ‘zine is far from dead — let’s all do our part to make sure it stays that way by supporting these amazing folks and their amazing work!
That’ll do quite nicely for this week, which leaves me with just enough timeto remind you that this column is “brought to you” each and every week by my Patreon site, where for less money than a hit of acid cost when I was a kid you get exclusive thrice-weekly ravings and ramblings from yours truly on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature and politics. Plus, supporting me there keeps me sufficiently motivated to provide a steady supply of entirely free content here and over on my trashfilmguru movie site. Please take moment to check it out and consider supporting my work by following this here link : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse
And so we come to the most unusual of our year-end “Top 10” lists, this one looking at my ten favorite “special mentions” of 2018, and I suppose that some explanation is in order : simply put, a lot of great publications that came out of the comics world this year were, for lack of a better term (at least a better term than I can think of, you may fare better) “comics-adjacent,” in that they were by cartoonists, but took the form of illustrated short stories, collections of drawings, etc. Also included in this category are publications about comics — ‘zines, scholarly works, and the like. Now then, with those ground rules in place —
10. Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South By Jeff Zenick (Self-Published) – One of the better pure illustrators working today, and one whose work consistently flies under the radar, Zenick’s collection of drawings based on mug shots found online of folks run afoul of the law below the Mason-Dixon line is his most conceptually “tight” offering to date, and captures the essential character of the desperation that leads to/ends in criminal activity far better than “mere” photographs ever could. A sobering, straight-forward look at the underbelly of society that most would rather pretend doesn’t exist.
9. Journal Of Smack (2018) By Andrea Lukic (Self-Published) – Lukic’s semi-regular journals are always fascinating, but her latest is like a “found object” from another time, place, and possibly even dimension, ostensibly telling an illustrated vampire story that circles back in on itself frequently — but what’s really going on here is something much deeper and more profound : preconceptions of what words and pictures can and even should do in juxtaposition are challenged head-on, shaken up, and re-arranged in new, unique, and even unsettling ways that are hard to explain, but undeniably powerful and instantly memorable.
8. Folrath #2 By Zak Sally (Self-Published) – The second installment in Sally’s ongoing prose memoir of his early-’90s “punk years” is no mere exercise in nostalgia for its own sake, but rather a gripping and evocative attempt to reconcile what one’s part even means — and how it never really leaves us, even when we think we’ve left it behind. The publication format here is also innovative and aesthetically pleasing, using riso printing and an “old-school” typeface to give the proceedings a wistful look that amplifies the tone of the writing.
7. But Is It — Comic Aht? Edited By Austin English (Domino Books) – Oh, hell yes ! The newsprint comics ‘zine had been in desperate need of a comeback for some time, and English is just the guy to resuscitate it. A thorough and comprehensive interview with the great Megan Kelso and an examination of the Mexican comics underground by Ines Estrada are the standout features to this critic, but the other reviews and articles are all tops, too. A true and obvious labor of love that you’re guaranteed, in turn, to love yourself.
6. Dog Nurse By Margot Ferrick (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of those rare “total packages” that has it all in terms of both form and content, Ferrick’s mysteriously heartwarming tale of a precocious but alienated child and her hired caretaker’s attempts to reach an understanding with her is lavishly illustrated, but equally lavishly presented between fastened hard covers on rich, French-fold pages. Well and truly stunning in every perspective.
5. Nocturne By Tara Booth (2dcloud) – Perhaps the closest thing on this list to a traditional “comics” narrative, Booth’s undeniably charming tale of a consequential evening in the life of a dominatrix, told by means of sequentially-arranged gouache paintings, is incredibly fluid, to be sure, but also far more conceptually dense than it may appear at first glance, incorporating themes of sexual identity, communal living, complex (and perhaps unhealthy) relationships with food, and body-image acceptance into a non-alienating, visually literate, wordless narrative. Some books leave a mark — this one casts a spell.
4. Accursed By Daria Tessler (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of the most gorgeous riso publications ever made, Tessler’s mind-bending visual interpretations of accompanying ancient Greek and Roman curses is a rich exploration of the timelessness of the urge for revenge rendered in a gorgeous and vibrant color palette that literally makes the already-“trippy” images achieve a kind of near-sentience as they draw you into a world unlike any other ever depicted. The die-cut cover with embossed ink and fold-out center spread will blow your mind if the contents haven’t already.
3. John, Dear By Laura Lannes (Retrofit/Big Planet) – A harrowing tale of emotional and psychological abuse manifesting itself outwardly in the form of physical deformation and mutation, Lannes has taken “body horror” to a whole new level by infusing it with social relevance — and her richly-black graphite renderings will not only take your breath away, but literally suck it right out of your body. I defy you to read this and not feel absolutely hollowed out afterwards.
2. The Woman Minotaur By Sara L. Jackson (Self-Published) – Sumptuous, beautiful, and horrifying all at once, Jackson’s painted short story revolving around themes of parental abandonment and alienation is as emotionally and psychologically charged as it is visually ambitious. A supremely self-assured work that establishes its own rules with fearlessness, integrity, and ingenuity, this is an entirely new form of artist-to-audience communication that goes right for the heart and twists it mercilessly.
1. Why Art? By Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics) – Asking, and answering, its titular question by means more allegorical than expository, Davis’ deceptively “simple” illustrations and sparse, economic narrative shave off anything and everything superfluous and consequently “mainline” her story directly into readers’ metaphorical veins with an immediacy so nonchalantly assumed that its sheer power is immediately and automatically taken as a given. A work of singular and undeniable genius — and that’s a word you will only catch me using when it’s not only warranted, but frankly inescapable. Davis makes her strongest argument yet for being the cartoonist laureate of our times.
So there you have it — ten great comics that weren’t exactly comics. Next up is our final list of the year, focusing on original graphic novels. That goes up tomorrow night, and may surprise you just as much for what isn’t included on it as what is. How’s that for a teaser?
Not as hard as the cartoonist who made them, of course — and Austin English busted his tail (and his hands, and probably even his brain) on his latest solo book, The Enemy From Within, published in late 2017 by Sonatina Comics. The sheer effort that went into the creation of the thematically-linked triptych of stories (the titular “The Enemy From Within, ” “Half-Hearted Slogan Dance,” and “Solo Dance #2”) is apparent on all 22 of these intricately-detailed, insanely imaginative pages. English uses every last millimeter of space available to him, his images densely packed from corner to corner, side to side, negative space a luxury he can seldom afford. He’s clearly got a lot to say — but what is it?
I’ll be honest — four times through this book, I’m still trying to figure that out. But I think that’s the point : English has always been about as visually ambitious as anyone around, his modern art sensibilities on full few (hello Picasso, and all that), but he’s veered completely into dada-ist territory with this one, so it’s a safe bet that the work will have as many different interpretations as it does readers. What it means to me, then, may be something entirely different than what it means to you — and that’s assuming it means anything to you at all, which it very well may not.
And you know what? That’s okay, too — you’ll at least walk away from it with an exhausted mind and even more exhausted eyeballs, since there’s literally no way to casually glance at this. You’ll be drawn in immediately, even if what it is you’re drawn into can’t be fully comprehended, much less described with mere words after you’ve put it down. All of which is my roundabout way of saying “look, folks, I’m doing my best here — and even that may not be enough.”
If you’re looking for narrative, forget it — English is expunging the contents of his fevered subconscious out onto the page with too much ferocious precision to slow down for that sort of shit. His characters — I hesitate to use the term “protagonists” — are forever on the brink of a kind of unavoidable oblivion, barely holding it together in the face of a silent-but-immovable edifice of individuality-erasing constructs and/or phenomena such as corporations (and their logos), advertising slogans, cliched catch-phrases (which are scrawled right onto their bodies, as if they have as much physical reality as the “people” themselves), and emotional/psychological needs ultimately dependent on others for their fulfillment (validation, affirmation, love, hate). The question it seems to me he’s getting at is —who are you? Is there an irreducible element of “self” that exists apart from all these influences?
There’s no answer to that, of course —and that’s the scary thing. Coming to terms with the idea that everything and everyone has an effect, even just a passive one, on everything and everyone else means negation is a real possibility at all times, maybe even an ongoing process, whether it comes our way via relationships, consumerism, employment, schooling — no form of interaction is safe. Everything you do means someone or something else “gets in” on some level. And yes, that even includes reading some befuddled (and, no doubt, befuddling) comic book review.
Here’s what I do know for certain : this is a work that challenged me a hell of a lot and will no doubt continue to do so, and the presentation is as gorgeous as material this lushly-rendered and thought-provoking deserves. The covers are thick cardstock; the paper slick, glossy, heavyweight. You’re holding some serious fucking art in your hands here, and Sontina pulls out all the stops on the production side to ensure you don’t forget it — as if you could. I may not have figured out this comic, or even come close to doing so, but it’s been on my mind constantly, in a way nothing I’ve read so far this year (save, perhaps, for D.R.T.’s Qoberious Vol. 1) has. Austin English has blown open a hole in the universe — and, yeah, in my head, too.
If eight bucks to fundamentally shake up your perceptions of everything about existence itself sounds like a bargain to you — and, trust me, it is — then take the plunge and order The Enemy From Within directly from English via his Domino Books publishing and distro outfit at this link : http://dominobooks.org/enemywithin.html