Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year in Review : Top Ten Single-Issue Comics

And so it begins : with the end of the year breathing down our necks, it’s time to take stock of the best (by my estimation, at any rate) comics of 2021, broken down, as usual, into six different categories so as to avoid the goofy shit you find elsewhere — like, say, a 12-page mini having to “compete” against a 400-page graphic novel, or a book of reprinted material being judged by the same standard as all-new stuff. My goal is to get three lists done this week, then do three more next week, beginning with the TOP TEN SINGLE-ISSUE COMICS, which means stand-alone “floppy” comics or minis, or single issues of ongoing series which were one-offs — any series (limited or ongoing) which saw two or more issues released in 2021 will be eligible in the TOP TEN COMICS SERIES category. Sound good? Let’s do this :

10. God Bless The Machine By Connor McCann (Strangers Fanzine) – An acid-trip science fiction conceptual free-for-all that takes dead aim at vapid celebrity worship and global media consolidation while never forgetting to be a ton of fun along the way, McCann’s comic is equal parts timely as hell and decades ahead of its time. If you miss the days when comics were insane, fun and insanely fun, I’ve got good news : they’re back.

9. Birth Of The Bat By Josh Simmons (The Mansion Press) – Simmons’ latest “Bootleg Batman” comic continues his trend of de facto deconstruction by taking the character of the Caped Crusader to its logical extremes — which is to say, well past the point of disturbing absurdity. Where some are content to merely mine the so-called “Bat mythos” for all its worth, Simmons strip mines it — and yet always seems to have more to say on the subject.

8. Epoxy #6 By John Pham (Self-Published) – Another sumptuous riso-printed feast for the eyes from the modern master of hand-printed comics. Who can say no to more “J+K” hijinks, another installment of “Deep Space,” and fold-outs and inserts galore? I know I sure can’t. Long may this series continue.

7. BUM : Unsmooth #2 By E.S. Glenn (Floating World Comics) – Glenn blows the doors wide open with this formally experimental, genre-hopping tour de force that plays with convention in the best way possible : by utilizing it for the artists’ own ends. Shifting styles as frequently as it shifts tone and perspective, this is one of those comics that leaves you with more questions than answers while all the time making its own kind of highly-specialized “sense” along the way. Ambitious, multi-layered, and metatextual, this is auteur work of the highest order.

6. The Future Is An Open Mouth By Dustin Holland (Self-Published) – Speaking of auteur comics, Holland produces nothing but, and this represents probably the most successful synthesis of his idiosyncratic creative vision with the always-nebulous concept of reader “accessibility.” Which is to say, it’s fucking ecstatically weird, but you’re never lost within its hermetic “universe.” Like all the best art, its borderline-impossible to define what makes Holland’s work so special, you just know that it is.

5. Dear Mother & Other Stories By Bhanu Pratap (Strangers Fanzine) – Arguably the year’s most disturbing work both conceptually and visually, Pratap’s full-length debut challenges notions of identity, bodily autonomy, and intrinsic need on levels both macro and micro. If you don’t think there can be beauty in nihilism, think again, but be warned : the more you do think about this comic, the more sleep you’ll lose.

4. Burg Land 1 – Sleemore Gank By Alexander Laird (Self-Published) – The most imaginative sci-fi comic to come down the pike in a hell of a long time, Laird’s loosely-paced but tightly-plotted opening salvo of what promises to be a sprawling sci-fi opus is breathtaking on every level, creatively and technically, rivaling the riso production values of even the esteemed (and aforementioned) Mr. Pham. Sure, this comic is a clinic on the art of so-called “world building,” but it’s got more than enough heart to match its brains, and that makes all the difference.

3. Speshal Comics, Edited By Floyd Tangeman (Dead Crow) – Essentially a “bonus issue” of Tangeman’s groundbreaking Tinfoil Comix, and showcasing the work of many of the same cartoonists who have appeared in that anthology, the strips in this one all honor the late Bay Area artist/tagger Evan “Spesh” Larsen, and while I admit I never knew the guy, this comic sure makes me wish that I had. This is no mere “tribute” publication, however — rather it’s a celebration and examination of an artist, his ethos, and his body of work as seen from multiple points of view, and well and truly runs the stylistic and tonal gamut. “Spesh” himself may be gone, but this comic is a monumental legacy in and of itself.

2. Scat Hog Volume One By Cooper Whittlesey (Self-Published) – Every year it seems a comic comes from out of left field and knocks me for a wallop. This year, that dubious “honor” belonged to this collection of Whittlesey’s straight-from-the-id strips, scrawled with all the energy and urgency of self-exorcism and not so much released into the world as it was thrust upon it. Still, in my defense, nothing can really prepare anybody for this torrential onslaught of unleashed artistic imperative. Shock and awe, baby — emphasis on the latter.

1. Crashpad By Gary Panter (Fantagraphics) – A bit of a cheat here in that this is an oversized hardcover book as well as a “floppy” single issue, but if anything is worth bending the rules for it’s this, Panter’s love letter to the underground. And while it holds true to many of the precepts of its artistic progenitors, it never takes the easy way out by wallowing in nostalgia — instead, Panter takes inspiration from the past to do what he does best : show us a way forward. Far out? Sure. But don’t be surprised if this one takes you on a journey inside, as well.

Okay, that’s one down, five to go — next up we’ll be looking at the TOP TEN COMICS SERIES. Until then, a reminder that my Patreon is updated three times a week with whatever is on my mind on the subjects of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Depending on who you are, your support either is or would be greatly appreciated. https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

My Only Friend, The End : Josh Simmons’ “Birth Of The Bat”

Every ending, they tell me, is a beginning — so what to make of Josh Simmons’ “Bootleg Batman” trilogy, where every issue interconnects thematically, but each also represents a discrete “stand-alone” ending in its own right? Or, at the very least, a speculative or potential ending?

I ask this not only because Simmons’ latest (and, for the record, greatest), Birth Of The Bat, has recently been released by The Mansion Press, but because I subsequently read it in tandem (it’s tempting to say “in order,” but that doesn’t really apply) with 2007’s Mark Of The Bat (which first introduces the idea of Batman maliciously “branding” criminals, a vaguely-sanitized approximation of which made its way into Zack Snyder’s Batman V. Superman : Dawn Of Justice) and 2017’s Twilight Of The Bat (a post-apocalyptic Batman/Joker fable done in collaboration with cartoonist Patrick Keck, the premise of which was lifted nearly whole cloth for Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman : Last Knight On Earth) and it strikes me that while each represents a narrative “omega” for stand-in character Bruno Wain/The Bat, there is nonetheless a principal of escalation involved here in that every “issue” of this erstwhile “series” presents a more hopelessly depraved take on a character that is, let’s face it, pretty goddamn depraved to begin with. Unless you think the idea of a billionaire dressing up in fetish gear and going out at night to beat the shit out of poor and mentally disturbed people is cool or something, in which case you probably don’t read this blog in the first place.

Still, the three comics were produced far enough apart chronologically for Simmons to be adjudicated “innocent” of the “crime” of mere one-upmanship for its own sake : rather, I think it likely he’s delved deeper into the psychology of “his” character over time and found that the further down he goes, the uglier things get. Certainly as a reader, Ive soured on Batman and what he represents over the years, not just on a “macro” level but on a “micro” one : stories like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which I (along with almost everyone else) considered to be “edgy” and “mature” at the time of their publication, now strike me as barely-concealed revenge fantasies told from the point of view of the oppressor as hero (while, conversely, a reviled work like The Dark Knight Strikes Again! registers with my older self not as the self-indulgent failure I perceived it to be upon release, but as a bold attempt to bring both some fun and, crucially, humanity back to the Caped Crusader that audiences raised on his darker iteration were neither interested in or ready for, but I suppose that’s another matter for another time), so I can definitely appreciate where Simmons is coming from. There are many logical conclusions for the saga of The Bat, and the more thought you put into them, the more hideous the various possibilities seem.

To that end, Simmons has gone from Catwoman saying “enough is enough here, buster” to Batman and Joker playing out their unspoken pact of mutually-assured-destruction even after the world’s already been destroyed to a hedonistic Bruno Wain realizing the dark truth that we all know, which is that he gets off on all the violence and brutality that he inflicts — so much so that he’ll even inflict it on himself if no one else is handy. When someone finally is handy — other than, errmm, his hand, which gets in a good workout early on here — the resultant battle provides Wain with the impetus he needs to regain his sadistic youthful vigor by undergoing a self-engineered, and characteristically fucked-up, ritual of “rebirth,” and so it is that this ending is also explicitly a beginning in a way that Simmons’ first two Bat-books weren’t.

Now, since we’re being frank : the villainous Puffin (you probably know who that is) and long-suffering butler Albert (you definitely know who that is) really only “exist” for the same reason their DC-approved corollaries do — to function as passive ciphers that actively illuminate various character traits of The Bat himself. Without his decidedly dark sun to orbit around, they’d have no more purpose than, say, The Joker, but given that neither has ever been afforded the self-generated gravitational pull that the Clown Prince of Crime has, they’re actually the perfect supporting players for a story that’s quite literally about The Bat being swallowed whole up the ass of his own mythos. They’re here because The Bat needs someone else to both beat up and berate other than himself, and to accentuate how truly lost their nemesis/boss has become, but to their credit they do seem like they’d each appreciate some way out of this fix — The Bat, ehhh, not so much.

At this point you could be forgiven for assuming this must be a relentlessly dark comic almost by default, and so it is, but don’t make the mistake of also thinking it isn’t funny — the absurdity of what he’s putting his protagonist, and those around him, through is never lost on Simmons, and while I’ll never argue that Keck was anything other than the perfect artist for the previous comic in this triptych, it’s nice to see our guy Josh back behind the drawing board for this one, as his instincts as a humorist lend a sense of OTT hijinks to these proceedings without ever once dialing back the macabre. It’s a fine line to walk, to be sure, but he’s a veteran of this metaphorical balance beam by now, and as such this is very much a tonally perfect comic from start to finish.

The tone it resonates, however, is a decidedly discordant one by design. There’s no hope for Bruno Wain to evolve into anything other than a more “perfected” version of himself, and so the fact that he does so is, for lack of a better word, “impressive” — but that’s akin to saying Ted Bundy become a more skillful killer over time, or that Bernie Madoff came up with more and more intricate ways to swindle people the longer he was at it. As director Matt Reeves looks set to unleash the most overtly psychotic Batman on movie audiences to date, it appears as though we’ll once again be able to say that Josh Simmons did it both first and better . And if, indeed, this proves to be (as it would appear) the last of his “last words” on the character, it represents a fitting finale — for both cartoonist and reader. Whether or not you want to read another Batman comic after this is, of course, your own concern, but trust me when I say you absolutely won’t need to.

Also worthy of note : the third issue of Simmons’ mini-comics series Ghouls is also newly available as we speak, and is likewise probably the strongest to date featuring as it does a dizzyingly disturbing mix of horror-themed art, comics, and prose. Contact joshuahallsimmons@yahoo.com for more info, or you can probably just get it for $3.00, plus a buck or two for shipping, if you PayPal him at that address.

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Silver Sprocket had some copies of Birth Of The Bat available for awhile but they appear to be sold out, so unless and until another US-based distro gets their hands on it, your best bet to get ahold of it is by ordering it for eight euros from The Mansion Press at https://themansionpress.bigcartel.com/product/birth-of-bat-by-jos-simmons-1000-copies-limited-edition

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 if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse