Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Ongoing Series

The 2018 ” Top 10″ train keeps rolling! This time out : my ten favorite ongoing series of the year. Open-ended or limited runs are fine, as long as the books in question adhere (however tenuously, in some cases) to a production schedule of some sort. Ongoings that release one issue a year (or less) are not eligible in this category, although many such series — like Sean Knickerbocker’s Rust Belt and Anders Nilsen’s Tongues, to name just a couple — were represented in my previously-posted “Top 10 Single Issues” list. And so, with all that out of the way —

10. Exit Stage Left : The Snagglepuss Chronicles By Mark Russell And Mike Feehan (DC) – While never quite reaching the same heights as Russell and Steve Pugh’s The Flintsones, this re-imagining of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon cat as, essentially, Tennessee Williams was still a superb take-down of McCarthyism, and was a topical, poignant, and fun read with obvious parallels to the Trump era. Feehan’s crisp art looks like a million bucks, and the flat-out superb coloring of Paul Mounts makes it look like two million.

9. Abbott By Saladin Ahmed And Sami Kivela (Boom! Studios) – Not since Sugar Hill have blaxploitation and the occult been paired this successfully, and besides featuring the breakout protagonist of the year, this 1970s-set series touched on a boatload of social problems that, you guessed it, still haven’t gone away. Both story and art were pitch-perfect for the material, and my sincere hope is that Ahmed and Kivela will be getting to work on a sequel sometime in the not-too-distant future.

8. Shanghai Red By Christopher Sebela And Joshua Hixson (Image) – A thoroughly engrossing historical fable of crimping, piracy, and gender-bending that flew well below most folks’ collective radar for some reason, this five-parter made damn sure you’ll never look at the history of Portland, Oregon the same way again. Lavishly illustrated and sharply written, this is one you absolutely need to seek out in trade if you took a pass on it in singles.

7. Daygloayhole Quarterly By Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket) – I’ll just come right out and say it : Passmore’s hilarious, absurd, and eminently relevant take on post-apocalyptic “life” probably deserves to be ranked as highly as second or third on this list, but — it’s a reprint series, and therefore I’m skirting my self-imposed ruled by even allowing it “through the door” in the first place. Still, it’s so damn good that I had to find a way to include it, even if it meant fudging things on the margins a bit. If you’re not reading this/haven’t already it, you’re missing out on something well and truly extarordinary. And yes, I use that term with precise intent.

6. Prism Stalker By Sloane Leong (Image) – Feminist sci-fi of the highest order and one of the most visually captivating comics of the year, Leong has created a work for the ages here, as well as a marvel simply to look at. An intoxicatingly beautiful marriage of form and function that defies easy categorization every bit as much as it defied the odds by getting published by one of the “major indie” outfits in the first place, this title knocks you back and leaves you reeling.

5. Black Hammer : Age Of Doom By Jeff Lemire And Dean Ormston (Dark Horse) – The second “season” of the last word in super-hero revisionism may not break new ground in the same way the first did, but even at 75% (roughly) of its initial glory, this is still absorbing, compelling stuff, that both creators are quite clearly pouring all kinds of heart and soul into. And when one of ’em needs a break, who the hell in their right mind is gonna argue about Rich Tommaso filling in on art for a couple of issues?

4. Hey Kids! Comics! By Howard Chaykin (Image) – Leave it to the biggest contrarian in comics to hit us from out of nowhere with his strongest work in decades hot on the heels of the most reviled book of his career. Chaykin pulls no punches and takes no prisoners in this warts-and-all look at comics’ decidedly sleazy ethical history, yet it’s all quite obviously coming from a place of absolute reverence for many of the masters of the medium that it’s taking entirely non-gratuitous “pot-shots” at. New Chaykin regular colorist Wil Quintana does a bang-up job providing stirring hues that make these pages absolutely sing, and goddamn if Ken Bruzenak’s lettering and “effects” still don’t look 20 years ahead of their time. Fuck all the naysayers — at his best, which this surely is, Chaykin still delivers a comics reading experience like no other.

3. Love And Rockets By Gilbert And Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Middle age isn’t something to be endured in the hands of Los Bros., it’s something to be celebrated, and this series’ return to its classic “magazine” format somehow accentuates the point that both brothers are making about “the more things change —.” This book is the reason you love comics. Pray it runs forever.

2. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen : The Tempest By Alan Moore And Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf/Knockabout) – The final comics project (or so we’re told) from both of these legendary creators is both a love letter and middle finger as they head for the exits. The love letter is to the art form itself, while the middle finger is stuck up high, proudly, and entirely justifiably to the industry. A new, all-female iteration of the League is a stroke of genius, as is the decision to up the “humor quotient” considerably after the rather dark turn taken in the last “volume.” How much do we all miss this comic before it’s even over?

1. Now Edited By Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics) – 120-plus pages of the best in contemporary cartooning for ten bucks an issue? How do you beat that? Answer : by infusing the title itself with a distinct sense of purpose that goes beyond such simple and easy anthology premises as specific themes or shared aesthetic sensibilities in favor of selecting work by cartoonists that not only exemplify, but in may ways define where comics is at — errmmm — now. Dash Shaw, Nathan Cowdry, Antoine Cosse, Daria Tessler, Roam Muradov, Al Columbia, Eleanor Davis, Theo Ellsworth — just some of the “murder’s row” of talent to appear in the pages of what is, without question, the quintessential anthology of the decade. Everyone is bringing their “A game” to the party here so far, and the result is my favorite series of the year, as well as the most significant.

And so we reach the end of the second of our six lists! Next up : Top 10 Contemporary Collections, the category devoted to 2018 books that presented material originally serialized as single issues, anthology stories, etc., as well as English-language releases of international material such as Manga, Eurocomics, etc. I’m hoping to have that one ready in the next couple of days here, do stop by and check it out!

“Daygloayhole” : Ben Passmore Proves That The More Things Change —

I don’t know what kind of music Ben Passmore listens to, but his work definitely has an admirably DIY punk “vibe” to it, not just aesthetically, but narratively — which may come as something of a surprise to readers only familiar with his best-known book, last year’s Ignatz-winning Your Black Friend. That comic was an expertly-structured treatise on as relevant a topic as one can possibly imagine, emotionally resonant to be sure, but designed primarily to engage readers on an intellectual level. It succeeded in everything it set out to do with flying colors, but marked something of a departure for the newly-minted “genius” cartoonist behind it, who certainly never shied away from the political in his earlier work — but neither did he place it front and center in such a frank manner, choosing instead to let it inform, rather than define, prior efforts.

Now that his readership has grown exponentially, though, it’s a terrific time to re-visit the formative steps in Passmore’s career, and Silver Sprocket have wisely decided to do just that by reprinting his first long(ish)-form series, the four-part Daygloayhole, in crisp and vibrant full color on slick, high-quality paper between thick, cardstock covers. The first issue (labeled Quarterly Daygloayhole One) just hit shops today, and at six bucks it’s an absolute bargain, so don’t even fret about value for money. What you really want to know, though, is what the whole thing’s about, so —

Welcome to the post-apocalypse, motherfuckers! The “Big One” has come and gone, and certainly the trappings of films like The Road WarriorThe New Barbarians2019 : After The Fall Of New YorkEqualizer 2000 etc. are all present and accounted for here, but Passmore’s take on a nuked-out New Orleans features plenty of distinctly 21st-century twists to it : corporate exploitation of the masses still runs rampant, gentrification still threatens to rip the heart out of communities, cops are still crooked as snakes and prone to sudden fits of psychotic violence, and the rabble is still kept in line by means of an endless supply of distractions. And since we’re talking about those —

One of our protagonists here (the other being a mutant-fighting “warrior of the wasteland” known only as “Nolimitz”) is a hopelessly degenerate porn addict who is searching out a rumored literal monsoon of smut in hopes that he will either have  the time of his life jerking himself silly, or else be well and truly consumed by it, buried alive under a title wave of pictures of jiggling boobs and butts. Maybe both. Making this situation even more bizarre, though, is the fact that this character is — Passmore himself?

Self-deprecation is certainly a staple of autobio comix artists from Justin Green to Crumb to Chester Brown to Joe Matt to — well, the list is pretty well endless, isn’t it? But it’s something altogether new to present a “worst version of yourself” to readers and then plunk them/you into the middle of a fictitious situation — and an outrageously fictitious one at that. It works, never fear — but it’s a gutsy choice that would probably miss the mark in the hands of a lesser talent.

Then again, would a “lesser talent” even attempt a comic like this? Probably not. And yet Passmore’s “fourth-wall” busting works precisely because he’s constructed the only sort of environment where it can : a world entirely unlike our own at first glance, but exactly like it the moment you scratch beneath its surface. One could even argue that the only difference between the “reality” of Daygloayhole and our actual reality is that the bomb has gone off. Apart from that, human society — and human nature — seem more or less exactly the same, if exaggerated for purposes of both comedy and commentary.

So Passmore’s aims here are pretty clear, but one of the more enjoyable things about this book — and here’s where we get back to that DIY punk ethos I mentioned at the outset — is the simple fact that, “rules” of his world already firmly established in his mind, he doesn’t go for intricate, or even appreciably tight, plot construction, and instead feels his way through the situation he’s created in naturalistic, free-flowing, perhaps even stream-of-consciousness fashion. Having made up a solid premise, he’s fully confident in his ability to make it up as he goes along from there. Again, gutsy. And, again, he pulls it off.

His smooth-flowing line and organic, expressive style provide the perfect visual complement to the absurdist-but-all-too-real vignettes that comprise his makeshift “script” (a paradigm that successfully carries over into the superb back-up strips by Erin Wilson, Scott Kroll, and Tyrell Cannon), and in the end what we’ve got is a thoroughly-realized, and thoroughly-immersive, comic that ranks among both the most enjoyable, as well as the most thought-provoking, of the year to this point. Never take a pass on Passmore.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/22/2018 – 04/28/2018

Anthologies, surreal vegetarian polemics, and smarter-than-average TV tie-ins abound, so let’s jump right in —

A haunting and frankly topical cover from the great Al Columbia kicks off  Now #3, and as we’ve quickly come to expect, editor Eric Reynolds has assembled a first-rate selection of cartoonists from around the globe in the pages within. Standout selections from this issue are Eleanor Davis’ psychologically and sexually complex “March Of The Penguins,” Dash Shaw’s soul-baring “Crowd Chatter,” Nathan Cowdry’s unsettling “Deliver Me/Sweet Baby,” Nah Van Sciver’s amusingly ironic (and that takes skill at this point, believe me) “Wolf Nerd,” Anna Haifisch’s unapologetically straightforward “A Proud Race,” Keren Ketz’s beautiful, elegiac “My Summer At The Fountain Of Fire And Wonder,” and Roberta Scomparsa’s disturbing and all-too-real “The Jellyfish,” but for my money (and at $10 for 120 pages you won’t be complaining about how you spent yours here) the absolute revelation is Anne Simon’s triptych of strips, “The Lady Equina,” “Renaldo & Armida,” and “The Washer Of Virgins,” which reveal a cartoonist in absolute command of her considerable skills creating a hermetically-sealed world that is by turns alien and familiar, hilarious and heartbreaking, mythological and timeless. Simon’s debut full-length graphic novel The Song Of Aglaia is slated for release later this summer from Now publisher Fantagraphics, and it just jumped to the top of my “must-read” list.

What’s perhaps nearly as remarkable as the quality of the “hits” in this volume, though, is the intriguing nature of the few “misses” on offer — Ben Passmore uncharacteristically doesn’t achieve quite what he sets out to with “The Vampire,” but it’s clear what he was aiming for and damn gutsy of him to go for something so utterly different, Marcelo Quintanilha is barely undone by the scope of his own ambition in “Sweet Daddy,” Jose Ja Ja Ja attempts to blend the unconventional with the mundane in “Grand Slam” and nearly pulls it off, and Jason T. Miles’ intro and outro one-pagers (the former titled “We Were Bound,” the latter being nameless) and Nick Thorburn’s back cover present tantalizing glimpses of situations that would merit further exploration, but don’t quite succeed in establishing and/or reflecting the larger tonal similarities (as with previous issues there’s no set “theme” or subject in this one, but Reynolds’ chosen running-order of stories invites readers to intuit at least subliminal connections) that flow throughout the rest of the collection. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t mind when a cartoonist swings for the fences and ends up hitting a long fly-ball out, and just a half-year (or thereabouts) into its existence, Now, with its well-chosen mix of already-established “regulars” and comparatively new faces, consistently provides readers with compelling, challenging, intelligent material that leaves preconceptions in the dust and demands rigorous examination. The anthology of the decade has finally arrived.

While we’re on the subject of anthologies — and third issues — Shelly Bond’s Black Crown Quarterly #3 continues the rather frustrating pattern of her IDW sub-label’s centerpiece title not knowing if it wants to tell actual stories, or just get you to buy the other books in the line. I’m enjoying Rob Davis’ “Tales From The Black Crown Pub,” this installment being no exception, but the other regular feature, Will Potter, Carl Puttnam, and Philip Bond’s “Rich And Strange : The Return Of The Cud Band” seems to be running out of gas (just as well this chapter’s only a page long, then, I guess), and the strips set in the Cannonball Comics shop are decidedly feast-or-famine, with Leah Moore and Dilraj Mann’s “Comme Des Gorgons” leaning much more toward the “famine” side of the equation.

It’s definitely not all bad, though, don’t get me wrong — Mann provides a crackerjack wrap-around cover, Peter Milligan and Kristian Rossi’s “Tales From The Raygun : Butterscotch And Soda” is a concise little Vertigo-esque tale of “high weirdness” done with more-than-requisite aplomb, Emmeline Pidgen’s “How To Spot A Galaxy” more than lives up to the high standard of previous installments of “Hey, Amateur!,” and the Tini Howard-scripted “Ghost-Walk With Me : Canon Street By Torchlight,” also illustrated by Monsieur Bond, is more fun than a blatantly promotional yarn probably has any right to be, while David Barnett and Martin Simmonds’ Punks Not Dead sidebar story, “Pretty In Punk,” provides an intriguing glimpse into the early years of Feargal Ferguson’s mother that goes some way toward explaining why she is the way she is today and fleshes out the world of their series considerably in just a few pages.

Tell you what, though, the less said about the text pieces in this ish the better — Barnett’s interview with Howard about her and Nick Robles’ forthcoming Euthanauts series is fine, but Cathi Unsworth’s “Swell Maps” (this time focused on Newcastle and featuring illustrations, once again, by the talented Cara McGee) suffers from the Black Crown curse of being too self-consciously “cool” for its own good, which is likewise my main “beef” with regular features “Four Corners” (Simmonds being forced to prove his “hipness” in this one) and “Beat Surrender” (which strong-arms Ms. Moore into doing the same). Things are simply becoming to repetitious and insular in this comic for it to maintain my interest much longer, and those are two “strikes” a series can’t afford when it’s saddled with an editorial vision as narrow and dated as Bond’s — and speaking of “can’t afford,” while this comic is printed on very nice paper and features high-quality cardstock covers, $7.99 for 48 pages is a more than a bit much, especially when you factor in that no fewer than six of those pages are eaten up with “house” ads for the other Black Crown books.

I dunno — I really wanted to like this comic, and there are things about it that I am perfectly well-satisfied by, at the very least, but I simply can’t keep justifying the expenditure at this point. I’m sticking with Black Crown’s other titles happily, but this is me saying “good-bye” to their “flagship” book.

Patrick McGoohan’s legendary ITV series The Prisoner has been “optioned” for four-color exploitation before — Jack Kirby started in on an adaptation while it was still running (or maybe shortly thereafter) that was abandoned before it saw publication, and DC released an “authorized” sequel by Dean Motter in the late 1980s — but Titan Comics seems bound and determined to give us the “definitive” funnybook iteration of Number Six with The Prisoner : The Uncertainty Machine, the first issue of which hit shops this past Wednesday. I grabbed the variant cover featuring one of Kirby’s stunning splash pages inked by Mike Royer (here presented in color for the first time — and in Mike Allred color, at that), but it was the interior of the book that actually impressed me most : Peter Milligan and Colin Lorimer would both be at the top of anyone’s list to helm this project, and they each deliver in a big way. Milligan’s script is tight, fast-paced, and sets the stage well for what promises to be a very intriguing updating of the concept, while Lorimer and colorist extraordinaire Joana Lafuente dial back the darkness a bit from their amazingly creepy Shadowline/Image horror title The Hunt and capture the tone and feel of the TV show pitch-perfectly. I swear, the double-page spread of The Village at the tail end of this comic is worth the $3.99 asking price all by itself. I am definitely in for the duration here.

And last but certainly not least, Richard Starkings, Tyler Shainline, and Shaky Kane are continuing to absolutely slay me with their Image series The Beef, and the just-released third issue continues their pattern of not so much subverting, but completely ignoring more or less every aspect of graphic storytelling convention altogether and writing their own rule book, which simply reads, in bold, block caps : “THERE ARE NO RULES.” We’re talking about a comic about a guy who turns into a slab of raw meat, after all. Dairy products and veal come in for special — and richly-deserved — shaming this time out, but the narrative also propels itself toward something that should serve as an approximation of a “conclusion,” as the asshole meat-packing plant owner’s even-bigger-asshole son puts The Beef’s lady-love in danger and the bought-and-paid-for local cop tries to fuck everything up for our ostensible “hero.” A savage take-down of the prejudice, gluttony, idiocy, and flat-out ugliness of Trump’s America that can’t decide if it wants to make you laugh or make you cringe and so, wisely, opts to do both, this comic is like nothing else that has come before it — nor anything that will follow in its wake. I’m in straight-up awe of this shit.

Okay, I’ve bent your ear for long enough, I think. Next week’s round-up is a bit up in the air as I’m headed out of town for the weekend, but if I can get some stuff read before Friday, who knows? Maybe I’ll surprise everyone — myself included — by slapping a column up before I head west for a few days. If not, then I’ll hope to see you good readers back here in two weeks’ time!

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Single Issues

And so it’s that time of year again : let the debating begin, I suppose, as the various “Top 10” lists begin to hit the internet in earnest, but one thing I think we can all agree on — it’s been quite a year in the world of comics. The underground lost luminaries Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, the mainstream lost Swamp Thing co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson — there have been some tough moments.

But there have also been a number of “highs,” as well — in fact, one could make a fairly convincing argument that 2017 has seen more really fucking good comics published than any year in recent memory. To that end, then, we’re splitting this annual “best of” round-up into several columns, the basics of which will proceed as follows :

The top 10 graphic novels list will be pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a survey of the best original graphic novels of the year. A lot of stuff gets serialized, in whole or in part, online these days, but books that collect pages that cartoonists have serialized in such a manner will be eligible in this category as long as they tell a single, long-form story with something akin to a beginning, a middle, and an end. Collections of serialized short strips, trade paperback collections of single issues and the like, however, will not be listed in this category, since they’ll be going into —

The top 10 collected editions (contemporary) list, which will be composed entirely of previously-published (physically or electronically) works post-Bronze Age, which means anything that collects stuff from the so-called “Modern Age” (roughly the late-1980s right up to the present day) is eligible here. As for the older stuff —

The top 10 collected editions (vintage) list will be the home for all that, with any book and/or periodical presenting material from the birth of the medium up through the aforementioned Bronze Age duking it out for supremacy in this category.

Okay, I hear you say, that’s all fine and good as far as books go, but what of “floppies”? I’m glad you asked, and I came prepared with an answer — one which, believe it or not, actually took a little bit of thinking on my part —

The top 10 comics series list will feature both ongoing and limited series, anything published in single-issue format, with one caveat : annual (or thereabouts) publications like Sammy Harkham’s Crickets or Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats will not be eligible here, nor will any series that saw only two issues published in 2017, since it just seems inherently unfair to have any series that either wrapped very early in the year, or that lots and lots of attention and care are put into, competing against stuff that has to stick to a strict monthly (if not twice-monthly, thanks DC) deadline. These less-frequent publications are, however, eligible in the list that we’ll be starting things off with here —

The top 10 single issues list, which is also the list that mini-comics and one-shots of various stripes will be included in.

Whew! Got all that? Okay, good. I only need to include a couple final caveats, then, before we get started :

1. These will not be lenghty, or even “capsule,” reviews — just quick summations. A good chunk of this stuff I’ve written about in great detail earlier in the year, and some of it I haven’t, but I don’t have either the time or the inclination to get into a “nuts and bolts” analysis of any of it now, and

2. Some stuff that came out very late in 2016 will be sneaking its way onto these lists, not only because I didn’t get a chance to evaluate it before writing my wrap-up columns last year, but also because many comics, particularly small-press comics, don’t find their way into the hands of most readers until a good few months after they’re released due to the fact that they’re not distributed by Diamond to bookstores or comic shops. Self-publishers, especially, often sell their creative wares on personal websites for some time before “catching on” with small-press distros like Spit And A Half, etc. And then there’s the whole situation with My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, which rolled off Korean printing presses in October of last year — but only a small batch of advance review copies made it here to the US before 2016 was out, the rest remaining stuck in the Panama Canal Zone until March of 2017, since the guy who owned the cargo ship they were coming over on had some back bills to pay before he could get his vessel out of hock.

Alright, with all that out of the way, then, let’s get on with the show —

10. I Wish I Was Joking by Tom Van Deusen (Poochie Press) – Van Deusen has long been one of the out-and-out funniest cartoonists out there, and this may very well be his best comic yet since he makes his stand-in “alternative” newsweekly reporter actually likable for a change. Less caustic than his previous works, but much more — dare I say it — charming.

9. Cosmic BE-ING #5 by Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham’s serialized Angloid story has its strongest outing yet, and also its most, believe it or not, down to Earth. Still “trippy” and “New Age” as all get-go, but far more anchored in workaday bread-and-butter concerns than prior installments. Graham’s remarkable illustration skills are really hitting a creative stride now, as well.

8. Trim #5 by Aaron Lange (The Comix Company) – Probably the most compelling issue of Lange’s annually-issued “solo anthology” to date, with intriguing explorations of his family’s German ancestry and a “cool” pastor he knew as a kid among the highlights. Plenty of laugh-out-loud gag strips, as well, most centered around the cartoonist’s art school days.

7. Lovers In The Garden by Anya Davidson (Retrofit/Big Planet Comics) – Some might argue that this is a “graphic novel,” but I’d call it “novella” length at best. Categorize it however you want, though, there’s no doubting that Davisdon’s assured cartooning makes her ’70s-grindhouse-style tale of dope dealers and cops a highly memorable read that holds together way better than most “vignette”-centered comics manage to.

6. Malarkey #2 by November Garcia (Self-Published) – Not just the best thing going in autobio comics right now, but the best thing to happen to autobio comics in years — and Garcia’s slices of life look even better with a little bit of color added to the mix. Possibly the most endearing comic you’ll read this year, which still seems a bizarre thing to say given most of its contents deal with alcoholism and neuroses, but there you have it.

5. Now #1 (Fantagraphics) – Eric Reynolds’ new anthology gets off to a more-than-promising start, with standout contributions from Eleanor Davis, Noah Van Sciver, Kaela Graham, Dash Shaw, and many others. 128 pages of the best in contemporary cartooning for ten bucks? Come on, you can’t do better than that.

4. Crickets #6 by Sammy Harkham (Self-Published) – The most deliriously arresting chapter of “Blood Of The Virgin” yet, as Harkham delineates the immediate, and seemingly complete, ruination of his protagonist’s life in rapid-fire fashion with an intriguing mix of empathy and clinical distance. I get the distinct impression that he doesn’t like Seymour all that much, but feels bad about what he’s doing to him regardless. Visually literate to a degree that’s almost painful.

3. Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket) – The winner of the 2017 Ignatz award for “Best Comic Book,” Passmore’s monologue on the reality of black life in America is concise, superbly-illustrated, and absolutely compelling. 12 pages you’ll never forget — because you’ll be reading them again and again.

2. Providence #12 by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – The conclusion to Moore and Burrows’ “Lovecraft Cycle” is every bit as harrowing and terrifying as the previous 11 issues had suggested it would be, and then some — in fact, it’s downright devastating. It’s well past time to put this series in the discussion of Moore’s all-time best works, and Burrows absolutely pulls out all the stops in bringing the existential horror of the dawn of this dark new age to life. A bona fide masterwork.

1. Songy Of Paradise by Gary Panter (Fantagraphics) – Okay, I admit this one’s a bit of a cheat given that it’s an oversized (to put it mildly) hardcover boasting a $35 cover price — but for all that, it’s still only 32 pages long, so that makes it a “single issue” in my book. And a damn engrossing one at that, as Panter finally puts his Paradise/Purgatory trilogy to bed with its most deceptively “simple” (as in, it’s anything but) segment yet. Rest assured, though, even if you haven’t read the other two books, this is an accessible, engaging, thought-provoking work that reveals more of its hiding-in-plain-sight secrets with every reading. A truly seminal effort from one of the most important cartoonists of his generation — or any other.

Trust me when I say you can’t go wrong with any of these comics, and I’m very comfortable with the “running order” I’ve placed them in. There were some damn close contenders that nearly made the cut, but time will tell if I get a chance to do an “honorable mentions” listing once the main event’s all said and done. One thing at a time, as they say. Speaking of which —

Next up I’ll be looking at my picks for the top 10 ongoing series of the year, so I’ll definitely look forward to seeing you good folks back here in a handful of days for that one. In the meantime, if you’ve got anything to say about this list, don’t be shy! What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I completely miss out on? Chime in and let me know!

This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 9/24/2017 – 9/30/2017

By and large long-form reviews seem to be the order of the day here (at least so far) with this new blog that I am, admittedly, still “feeling my way through” or whatever, but one thing I wanted to do when I decided to “break off” my comics criticism from its former home on my movie blog was to crank out some sort of weekly(-ish) column that takes a quick look at some stuff I’ve read recently that, for one reason or other, I just don’t feel compelled to devote 1,500 or more words, and an hour or more of my time, to discussing.

First up as far as that goes, then, is D.J. Bryant’s debut collection from Fantagraphics, Unreal City. A friend suggested that this book would help scratch my Lynch itch now that Twin Peaks is (deep sigh) over with, and I guess I can see the comparison to a degree, but these five stories (all of which have previously appeared elsewhere, although not in a fancy, oversized hardcover like this) wear a number of other conspicuous influences on their sleeves, most notably Daniel Clowes, with the protagonist of the last (and best) strip, entitled “Objet d’Art,” often appearing to be a near spitting-image for Clay from Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron. Perspective, reification, objectification, obsession, selfishness,  alienation, lethargy, and of course sex are major themes running through everything on offer in this book, and while Bryant seems to have a surface-level grasp on various art styles ranging from photo-realism to Harvey Comics-style “hijinks” cartooning, his technically proficient illustrations are ultimately as facile as his narratives, all of which hew tightly to a “Twilight Zone for grown-ups” formula that hinges on “twist” endings that not only usually fall flat, but ultimately undermine the character-driven psychodrama leading up to them. Bryant probably has some great comics in him waiting to come out, but they’re not to be found in these pages, and probably won’t emerge until he figures out how to distill all the voices of others that are whispering in his ear into one that is more distinctly his own.  I’ll keep an eye on his stuff to see how his work develops, as he does appear to have plenty of potential, but I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone spend $16.99 on this uneven — and largely unsatisfying — book.

While we’re on the subject of Fatagraphics, the first book released under their small-print-run Fantagraphics Underground (“F.U.,” get it?) imprint, Jason Karns’ Fukitor, has just rolled off the presses for a second time, and while more or less every critic I respect (and even a few I don’t) have spent the last couple of years imploring everyone, everywhere to avoid this collection culled from the pages of Karns’ self-published “floppies,” my disdain for authority, particularly self-appointed authority, kicked in and I decided to give it a shot. Turns out I should have listened to the army of detractors, though — these “EC On Bathtub Crank” strips are desperately trying to achieve Mike Diana or S. Clay Wilson levels of subversiveness, but their bizarre combination of painful self-awareness and utter lack of self-examination ends up making them feel a lot more like borderline glorifications of the racism, sexism, misogyny, and psychopathy that I’m guessing they’re theoretically designed to be functioning as a critique of. Karns certainly fits well within the “ugly art” tradition, but a collection of his visual grotesqueries sans narrative would probably make for a better book, since his “writing” (such as it is) basically functions as a wink and a nudge to audiences saying “come on, admit it, you like this shit.” The dark side of the “dudebro” culture that’s been seeping in at Fanta’s margins thanks to cartoonists like Matt Furie and Ben Marra.

Bottoms Up! is the latest thematically-assembled anthology from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books, and since it’s subtitled True Tales Of Hitting Rock-Bottom!, you already know what this one’s all about. Yost has once again assembled a flat-out superb collection of contributors for this book, with Noah Van Sciver (as you’d expect), Max Clotfelter, Meghan Turbitt, Jess Worby, John Porcellino, Sara Lautman, Peter S. Conrad, and Tatiana Gill being responsible for the strips I found most compelling, but even the “weaker” entries still have something to offer, and a good 25% or so of the cartoonists featured in this thing are folks I’ve never even heard of, so that’s always exciting. The contents are a mix of autobiographical stories and visual adaptations of the lives of anonymous others, and just in case you’re burned out on sordid tales of booze and drugs, fear not : addictions to porn, religion, sex, gambling and other vices are all present and accounted for, as well. The great Ben Passmore provides the cover. Buy this one now.

On the mainstream comics front, this week saw the release of Kamandi Challenge #9 from DC, and while this series has been as up-and-down as you’d expect given its “round-robin” format, it’s fair to say that this was the issue everyone was looking forward to given that it features a team-up of current “hottest writer in the business” Tom King behind the keyboard and TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman on art (Robbie Williams II provides inks). Presented in glorious black-and-white, this is easily the most visually interesting “Big Two” comic we’re likely to be served up this year, and King’s script, while overly-stylized and frankly desperate to be noticed, is nevertheless a harrowing, frighteningly stripped-down view of captivity, small-group dynamics, uncertainty, and how fucking annoying optimism can be. Two things I’m sure of : Jack Kirby is looking down on this comic from on high and smiling, secure in the knowledge that, finally, somebody got one of his concepts exactly right; and Rick Remender, if he ever reads it, will feel his blood pressure going up by a good 10-20 points as he sees pretty much every theme he’s put forward in his various ongoing four-color therapy sessions more or less completely negated in the space of 22 sparsely-dialogued pages.

Okay, that’s going to do it for this week, thanks to anyone and/or everyone who’s reading this, and if you think I should keep doing this sort of rapid-fire column on a weekly basis, then by all means, please chime in and let me know. I’m not too proud to admit when I’m desperate for feedback, and this whole “brevity” thing, well — it’s kinda new for me.

Listening To “Your Black Friend”

By the time you read this, odds are better than good that Ben Passmore will have an Ignatz Award with his name stamped on it, as well he should — his early-2017 Silver Sprocket release, Your Black Friend, is a leading contender in the “Outstanding Comic” category, and while he’s got some stiff competition, it’s hard to argue that fellow nominees such as Libby’s Dad and Sunburning (both of which I recently reviewed at this very site) are great reading, while this is required reading.

Clocking in at just 11 pages of story and art, this is essentially a “high end” mini-comic presented in gorgeous and expressive full color on top-quality matte paper with heavy cardstock covers, and while something tells me an argument could be advanced for presenting it in black and white, I’m not going to bitch about the format or aesthetics of its presentation in the least, because it looks amazing and Passmore’s rich and eclectic coloring choices bring just as much to the table, visually speaking, as his smooth and expressive, borderline-playful figure drawings, and pitch-perfect, atmospheric inks. In terms of sheer cartooning skills, there’s no doubt : this guy’s got the whole thing figured out.

What he’s also got figured out, though, is what’s essential to the topic at hand here : the realities of being black in America, specifically of being black and having white friends. And while I like to think of myself as being fairly “enlightened” when it comes to the various issues Passmore delves into in this comic, his central point still definitely hits home like a ton of bricks, namely — stop fooling yourself, no matter how much us white folks might like to think we “understand” the black experience, we’re still, for all intents and purposes, not even living in the same country.

Personally speaking, I wondered how much of this comic was really going to be “necessary” for me given that I’m married to a black woman and therefore like to at least believe that I have a bit more insight into the day-to-day realities of the “two Americas” than somebody who only occasionally interacts with black American life on a purely social level, but as it turns out I’m right in the “target audience” that Passmore is aiming his cartoon monologue at, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t have to stop, think, and take the time to fully absorb what he was saying in damn near every panel. If you’re white like me, there are any number of things your black friends, spouses, significant others, you name it would love to say to you but, for reasons that also touched upon here, they simply choose “not to go there.” Passmore is doing their work for them in these pages, and from where I’m standing that makes his comic the closest thing to a genuine public service that I’ve read this year.

Here’s what elevates Your Black Friend from the level of “merely” great to genius, though : for a book explicitly designed to take the white reader out of his or her largely-unearned “comfort zone,” it feels amazingly comfortable. From the opening page, set in a coffee shop where our nameless narrator both admittedly tries to game white guilt to his advantage yet also finds himself  stuck overhearing a conversation loaded with racist assumptions at the same time, to the closing page that brings both of those things full circle, Passmore adopts a free-flowing, conversational style that couches what is (and by every measure has to be) an entirely one-sided diatribe in terms that will put even the most uptight white person — well, not exactly at ease, but at the very least in a frame of mind where they’ll be open to what’s being said. The utter lack of pretense in both his writing and art serves Passmore very well indeed — not many cartoonists can take direct aim at white privilege without seeming “bitter” to white audiences, but even this comic’s most “angry” passages first take a moment to quickly (yet surprisingly fully) explain exactly what our narrator is angry about and why it’s not only right, but frankly unavoidable, for him to feel that way. Yeah, our man does one thing to which a fair number of readers of any race will object (I didn’t, but shit — even the fact that I feel the need to point that out probably says something about me and makes it clear that I’ve still got a lot to learn, I admit it), but even there, it’s framed in such a manner that you’re forced to reflect on why you might find his action off-putting and/or disproportionate in regards to the situation that it arose from.

So, yeah — I dunno, man. I like to think that I’m a fair-minded critic on the whole, but I also admit to being something of a jaded one. There’s very little I haven’t seen done (and usually done better) in comics before, and yet when something is executed well enough in terms of story and art, I’m still fully capable of being impressed by it. What Passmore has done with Your Black Friend goes well beyond that, though. While it’s not the reaction he was aiming for in the least and my saying so might even fly directly in the face of his goals, I’m just gonna come right out and confess that I’m more than a little bit awed by what he’s achieved here — cliched as it may sound, if everybody sat down and read this thing, I honestly believe the world really would be a better place. Or, failing that, at minimum we’d have a much more complete understanding of why it’s not.