Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

Here it is, the final “top ten” list in our year-end wrap, and probably the one people are most interested in. Books in this category are comprised of all-new material, never serialized in single issues or online, and constructed specifically for the so-called “graphic novel” format. And your “winners” are —

10. Blood And Drugs By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom Books) – A visceral, harrowing firsthand account of addiction and recovery on the social and economic margins by a cartoonist with a busted hand. One of the most immediate and unmediated works in recent memory, this one will leave an indelible mark on your brain.

9. The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade By Viken Berberian And Yann Kebbi (Fantagraphics) – Exploring architecture and gentrification as inherently political topics, this exquisitely-illustrated book has much to say about damn near everything,  yet never feels like a treatise or lecture. There’s nothing rotten about it at all, comrade.

8. Theth : Tomorrow Forever By Josh Bayer (Tinto Press) – Incorporating elements of memoir and metafiction to tell this remarkable coming-of-age tale, Bayer uses genre to explore deeply personal topics and to paint a portrait of a life that could well and truly “go either way.” Utterly unique stuff that will make you glad your late-teens and/or early-twenties are over with.

7. The Death Of The Master By Patrick Kyle (Koyama Press) – Meet the new boss, same as — ah, you know the drill. But you’ve never seen that axiom bought to life in such a formally inventive and wryly satirical manner. Kyle is in full command of his considerable gifts here, and you pass on it at your peril.

6. Gender Queer By Maia Kobabe (Lion Forge) – An intellectually and emotionally resonant memoir of awakening that addresses issues of gender and sexuality, or their absence, with frankness, insight, honesty, and even a little bit of humor. One of the year’s most important and engagingly-drawn books.

5. Pittsburgh By Frank Santoro (New York Review Comics) – A lavishly-illustrated account of a family and a city’s declining fortunes and the oblique reasons behind them, this is the crowning achievement of Santoro’s career and a testament to the power of emotional survival and perseverance. As formally exciting as it is deeply personal, this is a book that richly rewards re-reading and reveals new thematic depth every time you do so.

4. Grip Vol. 2 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – The second volume of Westvind’s soaring, elegiac tribute to working women everywhere serves as both perfect companion piece to, and necessary extension of, the first. Bursting with dynamic action and illustration, this is a genuinely triumphant and transcendent work.

3. The Hard Tomorrow By Eleanor Davis (Drawn+Quarterly) – A moving and very much “of the moment” exploration of what it means to be human, to be involved in a relationship, and to bring new life into the world, Davis’ boldest and most ambitious work yet cements her reputation as one of our most important contemporary cartoonists. This is who we are, where we are, and what we hope for all wrapped up in one one visually sumptuous package.

2. Bezimena By Nina Bunjevac (Fantagraphics) – A searing and disturbing portrait of obsession and mania, this psychologically violent work is as essential as it is difficult, and Bunjevac’s amazingly detailed cartooning is the very definition of darkly alluring. Tough to read, sure, but absolutely impossible to forget.

1. How I Tried To Be A Good Person By Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics) – A towering achievement in the field of comics memoir, Lust’s dense and thorough-going examination of a pivotal and formative period of her life leaves no stone unturned and stands out for its absolute emotional honesty. Brave, confident, and visually literate in the extreme, this is one of those rare books that establishes its author as a true master of the medium.

And we’re done! It’s been quite the task compiling all these lists, but I suppose that was to be expected — after all, it’s been quite a year. 2019 saw more quality comics releases than anyone could possibly keep up with, and to call that a “good problem to have” is to sell the situation far short. In point of fact, we’re living in a new Golden Age of creativity and expression, and if you dig my ongoing coverage and analysis of it, then please consider 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’d be very grateful indeed to have your support, so do give it a look at




Get Hooked On “Blood And Drugs”

Where I come from, drugs were always considered to be pretty fun — and, for the record, I feel that if consumed responsibly they are — but who are we kidding? Kicking them can be a real motherfucker, and it’s not like the path of recovery isn’t perilous in its own right. And when you’re in recovery, or attempting to begin recovery, on the social and economic margins, the entire enterprise is a hell of a lot trickier than it is for, say, some ne’er-do-well rich kid forced to walk the 12 steps after trashing daddy’s yacht.

Geographically speaking, at least, cartoonist Lance Ward is himself from “where I come from” — that being the Twin Cities, for those not in the know — but he’s clearly had a vastly different “drug experience” than I have, and in his new Birdcage Bottom Books-published original graphic novel, Blood And Drugs, his autobiographical stand-in character, Buster, indeed is having a hell of time kicking the habit from his position on those just-referenced social and economic margins. Oh, and a hand injury that renders him nearly unable to draw, effectively preventing him from both expressing himself creatively and making a living? That doesn’t help matters much.

With a narrative structure loosely based on the 12 steps themselves and a drawing style that reflects classically exaggerated cartooning sensibilities filtered through physical impairment, the book is a visceral gut punch, but not one determined to leave you down for the count : progress is possible in Ward’s story/memoir, but it’s hard won and not without “trade-off” costs of its own. The question Ward seems to be positing throughout, then, is not only what it takes to get and stay clean, but whether or not doing so is even a realistic option once a person is so far down a self-destructive path, and generally surrounded by people in the same position. And while the common answer you’ll likely hear from both right-wing “just say no” blowhards and liberal self-helpers is probably just either a mean or a nice version of “sure, if you really want it enough, you can do it,” the more realistic view offered from within the proverbial belly of the beast itself that Ward offers is that without real community and a healthy dose of the kindness of strangers, you’re ultimately doomed.

“Raw” and “immediate” are our two key buzzwords to keep in mind in relation to this work, as the “street-level” dialogue and necessarily haphazard illustration offer what can only be described as the most unmediated expression of personal armageddon and its aftermath committed to the comics page in recent memory, arguably ever. “Not for the faint of heart” may be a solid enough disclaimer to slap on this, especially if you are, but here’s the thing — it’s a book that is in no way, shape, or form heartless itself.

It is, however, tough. At times exceedingly so. The title itself makes that much plain as day to even the most oblivious would-be reader. But the odyssey of Ward’s “Buster” alter ego is also replete with small rewards, with timely acts of charity, with a kind of “gutter camaraderie” — and even with the occasional (small in reality, but large in context) triumph. Don’t be concerned about “feel-good” bullshit — this is far too honest a work for that. But it’s also honest enough to admit that even the roughest and most unforgiving of life’s slogs aren’t entirely absent occasional rays of sunshine, and that clinging to them — and working your ass off to make them a more frequent occurrence — is kinda what this whole process of coming out the other side is all about.

Going through all this admittedly difficult shit on the cold winder streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul only compounds the challenge, of course, and relapse looms around almost every corner, but the guarded optimism that makes its presence felt from time to time herein is not only an effective counterweight to the psychological and physical withdrawal, bleak employment and housing prospects, and casual violence that are the daily reality of addicts both current and former, it’s also both impressively brave and far less naive than the cynical may be inclined to believe. Reflective as it is, then, of the whole of addiction and recovery — good, bad, and all points in between — Ward’s book is a strong work of comics realism and one of the most instantly-memorable reads in some time.


Blood And Drugs is available for $15 from Birdcage Bottom Books at

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