Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

Next in our year-end lists we come to TOP TEN SPECIAL MENTIONS, a “grab-bag” category I came up with a few years back to encompass everything adjacent to comics that isn’t comics “proper” per se — so in short we’re talking about art books; ‘zines, books, and scholarly works about comics and/or cartoonists; non-comics projects by people who usually do comics; and, perhaps most nebulously, sequentially-illustrated narrative works that don’t quite fit the standard operating definition of comics in that they don’t contain word balloons, thought bubbles, or in-panel caption boxes. Read on and all will, hopefully, become clear :

10. Bubbles, Edited By Brian Baynes (Bubbles Publications) – Baynes’ “independent fanzine about comics and manga” had another strong year, and if there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate about this publication above all else it’s the unabashedly fannish tone the editor and writers bring to the table. There’s not an ounce of cynicism to be found in these pages — everyone who contributes to this ‘zine literally loves the medium, and it shows.

9. Please, God – Help Me Be Normal! By John Trubee (Mucus House) – A long-overdue comprehensive collection of Trubee’s “Ugly Men” drawings, plus other miscellany, that not only doesn’t disappoint but might even exceed expectations. A gallery of grotesqueries for the ages that is a required item on the coffee tables of all who read this blog.

8. Queen City By Karl Christian Krumpholz (Tinto Press) – A unique narrative and visual history of Denver by the cartoonist who knows it best, as well as a heartfelt lament for the its pre-gentrification glory days. this feels very much like the work Krumpholz has been building toward his entire career. Gorgeously illustrated, evocatively written, and altogether engrossing.

7. Strangers, Edited By Eddie Raymond (Strangers Fanzine) – The old-school print ‘zine that specializes in old-school content branched out a bit in conceptual terms this year, covering more new stuff and featuring tons of original comics by a “murderer’s row” of talented cartoonists. Every time a new issue comes in the mail I devour it from cover to cover, and it always leaves a big, shit-eating grin on my face.

6. Discipline By Dash Shaw (New York Review Comics) – Sure to be a fixture on many a “best comics of 2021” list, Shaw’s meditation on the Civil War, the limits of pacifism, and the human toll of conflicts inner and outer fits the SPECIAL MENTIONS category here in that it is a series of illustrations derived and adapted from letters written at the time. Innovative, exquisitely drawn, and instantly memorable, this is a powerful and poignant work from a contemporary master fully in command of all his storytelling gifts.

5. Francis Bacon By E. A. Bethea (Domino Books) – You can expect to find this on any number of “best-of” list as well — this one included, obviously — but again, due to the absolutely unique nature of Bethea’s work, I’m more comfortable categorizing it as “narrative sequential art.” Deeply personal, evocative, and as always using its subject as springboard to a long-form reverie that unfolds like a vividly-remembered dream, this is, in my humble estimation, Bethea’s most fully-realized and emotionally resonant ‘zine to date.
4. According To Jack Kirby By Michael Hill (Self-Published Via Lulu) – The necessary historical corrective we’ve all been waiting decades for is here, as Hill meticulously combs through thousands of “on-the-record” quotations and statements to present a persuasive and comprehensive case for Kirby as the pre-eminent creative genius in mainstream comics history as well as the sole creator of most of the so-called “Marvel Universe.” An exhaustive forensic examination of the facts written in an engaging, page-turning style that might even make the most hardened of Stan Lee partisans think twice about all the bullshit their guy spewed to line his own pockets and enrich his corporate paymasters at the expense of an undisputed — and still under-appreciated — true artistic visionary.

3. Mysterious Travelers : Steve Ditko And The Search For A New Liberal Identity By Zack Kruse (University Press Of Mississippi) – Without question the finest work of Ditko scholarship ever committed to print, Kruse re-contextualizes the iconoclastic creator’s singular body of work within a more expansive framework that gives new insights into the motivations behind, and philosophy of, one of comics’ most uncompromising auteurs. More than a historical re-analysis, this is a meticulously-researched and eye-opening critical appraisal of some of the most important work in the history of the medium that has only been partially understood by far too many who have laid unearned claims of expertise on it in the past.

2. A Cockeyed Menagerie : The Drawings Of T.S. Sullivant, Edited By Conrad Groth (Fantagraphics) – Years in the making, and clocking in at well over 400 pages, this utterly sublime monograph covers every phase of Sullivant’s groundbreaking career from the 1880s up to the 1920s, and to say no stone has gone unturned and no expense has been spared in its preparation and presentation is an understatement of criminal proportions. This is the prestige release of the year, perhaps of the last several years, and balances historical essays, critical appreciations, and painstakingly-restored artwork to give a full and complete picture of a true artistic trailblazer. Lose yourself in this one and you may find you never want to come out of it.

1. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden By Mannie Murphy (Fantagraphics) – A lyrical melding of the personal, political, social, and historical into one gorgeously expressive and darkly harrowing journey through both the streets of Portland and Murphy’s own life, this is bold and revelatory work that stands with the best art created in any medium this year. A love letter to an idealized vision of a city that never was, a requiem for a dream that nobody even tried to realize, a righteous call to action for a future that is hopefully still worth fighting for — this is a modern masterpiece in every respect that elicited a reaction I wasn’t even sure I was capable of anymore after so many years in the critical trenches : awe.

And with that, I’m taking a short holiday break. The end-of-year recaps will resume next week with my picks for TOP TEN VINTAGE COLLECTIONS, TOP TEN CONTEMPORARY COLLECTIONS, and TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS. Hope to see you then — in the meantime, should you want more of my content for whatever reason, including a couple of posts on my thought processes as I was cobbling these lists together, I humbly remind you that I have a Patreon that I update three times per week and that you can join for as little as a buck a month. Here’s the link :

Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Special Mentions

As we continue examining the best of the year that was, we come to the category that, year in and year out, seems to confuse the largest number of people, not least myself when I first came up with it : Top 10 Special Mentions. Basically, this is a clearinghouse for everything comics-related that isn’t strictly a comic, per se : ‘zines about comics, books about comics, art books, sketchbooks, unorthodox sequential narratives, collections of single-panel or “gag” strips — they’re all fair game here. Read on, and hopefully it will all become clear —

10. Bubbles Edited By Brian Baynes (Self-Published) – In no time flat, Baynes not only proved that there was still a place for old-school print fanzines, he turned his into the most essential one in recent memory. I’m not sure how he keeps up what I surmise to be a grueling production schedule, but he manages to put out three or four issues a year, and the quality doesn’t merely remain high — more often than not, it keeps going up. Everyone interested in the small press and self-publishing scenes should be reading this. It’s a little bit “fannish” in its editorial outlook, true, but what of it? Last I checked, they don’t call these things fanzines for nothing.

9. Mindviscosity By Matt Furie (Fantagraphics) – Over the past few years as he lost control of, and subsequently killed off, Pepe The Frog, Matt Furie has been channeling his creative energy into a series of phantasmagoric paintings that, as the cliche goes, “will blow your mind” — only in this case that’s the absolute truth. Having so many of them together in one collection like this is a legitimately heady experience, a dare for your conscious mind to process everything coming at it at once, and a giant “I won’t be intimated by you” middle finger to the Alt Right, all in one gorgeously-produced volume.

8. American Daredevil : Comics, Communism, And The Battles Of Lev Gleason (Chapterhouse) – A fascinating biographical portrait of one of the most important — -and unsung — publishers of comics’ so-called “Golden Age,” Dakin (who is Gleason’s nephew) here offers an engaging and well-rounded look at a man who put it all on the line not just for his comic books, but for his ideals, as well.. A compulsive page-turner that’s all the more provocative because every words is true.

7. And Now, Sir – Is THIS Your Missing Gonad? By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics) – In these crazy times, I find the fact that Woodring is still, after all these decades, mining the wellspring of creativity that is his “Unifactor” universe to be heartening in the extreme, and this collection of single-panel cartoons effectively distills the uneasily magical essence of Frank and his pals down to its purest form. Is it funny? Absolutely. Is it easy to articulate why it is, though? Absolutely not. And that’s the genius of Woodring — he taps into his subconscious and just goes wherever it takes him.

6. The Marchenoir Library By Alex Degen (Secret Acres) – A graphic novel of sorts, yes, but hardly a traditional one, in that Degen pieces together the mysterious history of his model/singer/superheroine protagonist via the the covers of a defunct magazine. High fashion meets high art meets high absurdity at the intersection of dreams and dusty memories, with little to differentiate one from the other — and isn’t that how our own past frequently plays out in our minds?

5. EC Comics : Race, Shock, And Social Protest By Qiana Whitted (Rutgers University Press) – A thorough-going examination of legendary publisher EC’s ahead-of-its-time editorial stance on matters of racial justice, Whitted’s tight focus on the so-called “preachie” strips and their relation to then-contemporary America is accessible comics scholarship at its finest. Too many academic texts have their head up their ass and are so convinced of their righteousness that they take it as a given, but Whitted does things old school , developing her highly-informed opinions on the work based on the evidence offered by it. As such, her conclusions are air-tight, and in this day and age of self-declared expertise in 140 characters or less, that’s very refreshing indeed.

4. High Socks New Jersey 1950 By Paula Lawrie (Marvin Gardens/Pacific) – Presenting Lawrie’s gallery exhibition of 36 graphite images in book form proves to be an inspired move as her delicate childhood narrative very much reads like it was constructed with publication in mind, even if it wasn’t. Sumptuous art meets economic but emotive prose to weave together perhaps the most affecting “new kid in town” story I’ve ever come across.

3. The Dairy Restaurant By Ben Katchor (Schocken) – Moving away from traditional comics to illustrated prose storytelling, Katchor draws upon over two decades of research and interviews to trace the history of New York’s meatless Jewish eateries specifically, but more broadly the history of restaurants in general, as well as the development of something called the “milekhdike personality.” It only sounds hopelessly arcane, trust me. This is one of those projects that only Katchor could make work and that only he’d ever think of in the first place — and that you’ll wonder how you ever lived without once you’ve finished reading it.

2. Toybox Americana : Characters Met Along The Way By Tim Lane (Fantagraphics) – Lane combines prose, illustrations, and yes, some comics, to give his most complete chronicling yet of the hobos, winos, derelicts, and down-and-outers that are trampled underneath — yet also form the backbone of — his career-spanning “great American mythological drama.” One of the most skilled illustrators on the face of the planet, you feel every year that formed every line on every face in Lane’s menagerie of archetypal has-beens and never-weres, and his proto-Beat writing style is sharp and inherently compassionate in equal measure. Proof positive that faded romanticism may not burn all that brightly, but it smolders away within the human heart forever.

1. Art Young’s Inferno By Art Young (Fantagraphics) – Young’s 1934 prose-and-pictures satirical re-imagining of Dante’s Inferno as the inevitable endpoint of capitalism is damning, hilarious, disturbing — and perhaps more relevant than ever in this day and age. It’s also flat-out gorgeous in this new edition reproduced directly from the original art, the amount of creativity and ingenuity that went into making the book in the first place here matched by the sheer care and attention to detail of absolutely second-to-none production values. There are labors of love, and then there are labors of eternal love — this is most definitely the latter.

Next up – the Top 10 Vintage Collections of the past year! See you here for that one in the next day or two!


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Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

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