“Peaking” At The Right Time : Brian Blomerth’s “Bicycle Day”

With his debut graphic novel, Bicycle Day, Brooklyn-based cartoonist and commercial illustrator Brian Blomerth has set for himself a fairly daunting challenge : not just to illustrate, but to visually communicate, a historical “first.” And not just any historical “first” at that, but one that involved entering another state of consciousness altogether — I refer to the world’s very first acid trip, deliberately undertaken by Swiss chemist/armchair mystic Albert Hofmann on April 19th, 1943, ostensibly as part of his daily research duties for the Sandoz pharmaceutical corporation.

The first thing he did after “turning on”? Apologies to Freddie Mercury, but — get on his bike and ride!

Of course, any number of rock album/poster artists (of which Blomerth can number himself) have produced deliberately “trippy” images over the years, but by and large the “target market” for this type of artwork, and the recordings and/or concerts it advertises, is composed of people who have already “turned on” at least a time or two. In this day and age, however, with LSD use having plummeted to a depressing degree as young people have swapped out consciousness-expanding drugs in favor of consciousness-negating drugs such as crystal meth, it’s fair to say that a good chunk of Blomerth’s prospective readership has never tripped — and that’s all well and good, I suppose, because our protagonist in this handsome Anthology Editions-published book never has when we meet him, either.

Cue, in the early going, what one would expect in terms of kaleidoscopic line art and rich, fluid color, albeit to a far greater degree — telling his story entirely by means of double-page spreads, Blomerth quite simply never lets up, establishing a tone of unreality early on (Hoffman, and all other “human” characters in the book, being portrayed as anthropomorphic dogs) and then going from there through various ebbs, valleys, highways, and byways of the psychedelic experience in a (sorry to invoke the obvious term, but) mind-bending succession of arresting, utterly inexplicable imagery that evokes not just the look and feel but, most essentially, the character of the LSD experience for a first-time user. Hell, for the first-time user.

Shapes that aren’t shapes move and/or stay perfectly still, sometimes simultaneously, in front of, behind, or even within backgrounds that might be foregrounds that might be real that might be unreal that — honestly, a few pages in (after some cursory introductory “dialogue” composed primarily of yodeling), you stop attempting to define, demarcate, discern, or even describe what you’re seeing, and simply go with the gently inexorable flow, which is about as authentic an approximation of the LSD experience as you’re likely to find committed to paper. Unless we’re taking about blotter paper.

There’s most definitely a progression in the first “act” (I term I use very loosely) here, and a “wind-down” near the end, but by and large it’s not like Blomerth necessarily commits to “one-upping” himself with each successive spread. Things tone down then ramp back up without warning and without regard to expectation, the ideas of “pacing” and “narrative thrust” left as far behind in the day-glo dust as consensus reality itself, again intuitively mimicking the very nature of every acid trip (at least every one I’ve  ever taken, never having experienced the mythical “bad trip” myself — which, like the “acid flashback,” I’ve always, and probably accurately, dismissed as just so much “just say no” propaganda), while utilizing his iteration of Hoffman’s unique POV to present it all through fresh eyes.

Veterans of the psychedelic experience may be tempted, at the point, to think that there must be something of an “LSD For Beginners” vibe to Blomerth’s comic, and that’s not entirely inaccurate, but I’d implore such readers to keep an open mind (shouldn’t be too tough if you’re an experienced “acid head”) and think back to their very first trip. Wouldn’t it be amazing to feel something like that all over again? That’s the effect Blomerth is going for — and, to his great credit, he manages to pull it off more often than not.

As a matter of fact, whether such was Blomerth’s intention or not (and bonus points to him if it was), this book functions as a very successful piece of “pro-drug” — specifically pro-psychedelic — propaganda, portraying tripping as not only something inherently beneficial and expansive, but something that’s been so from the very start. As such, then, it not only serves as a kind of visual travelogue through altered and heightened states of consciousness, but as a necessary, even long-overdue, counterpoint to the anti-drug hysteria that the American public has been inundated with for decades, resulting in one generation after another of uptight, boring, conservative squares.

Forward by ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna aside (not that it’s poorly written, mind you, anything but), the book even has something of a youthful, future-focused quality to it, Blomerth’s deliberately Disney-esque characters and utilization of modern digital coloring techniques being elements that should very much appeal to younger readers out there.

A children’s book about LSD? Hey, stranger things have happened — but you certainly don’t need to be a kid to glean a tremendous amount from Bicycle Day. Whether you’ve tripped hundreds of times, only tried acid a time or two, or have never touched the stuff, Blomerth creates a universal first-time experience anyone can relate to, and some may even feel compelled to replicate for themselves. If any readers out there have a decent LSD connection, please don’t hesitate to hit me up — I’m middle-aged and every “dealer” I ever knew has moved on to the same straight-laced world of 9-to-5 that I find myself in. Until I can get ahold of another hit of purple microdot (or whatever is out there these days) myself, though, Blomerth’s explosion of visual invention is a more than acceptable substitute for, and evocation of, the very best that the psychedelic experience has to offer.

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Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

With the advent (ha! Get it?) of December, the time has come, once again, for our annual look back at some of the finest comics the year had to offer. We’ll be skipping the usual offerings for the next week or two around here, including the Weekly Reading Round-Up column, since re-reading is your humble emcee’s top priority for the next little while. A run-down, then, of the six different categories I’ve broken things down into is in order, and please keep in mind that I’m deliberately eschewing calling any of these lists a “best-of” simply because I haven’t read everything that’s out there — and who could? Think of these, then, as lists of the ten best entries in each category that I’ve read. Or my own personal favorites. Or something. Anyway, “brackets” are as follows:

Top Ten Single Issues – Pretty self-explanatory, I should think : this list focuses on individual comic books and minis, either stand-alones or part of an ongoing series.

Top Ten Comics Series – This list is designed to spotlight comics that are produced on some sort of production schedule and honors those of consistently high quality. Open-ended, ongoing series and finite mini-series both are eligible, the only qualification is that each series has to have released at least three issues over the course of the past year, since if they’ve only put out two, either one of them would represent 50% of said comic’s total “output” and should, by rights, probably land in the “Top 10 Single Issues” category.

Top Ten Contemporary Collections – This list will focus on collected editions of material previously released either as single issues or in anthologies, etc. English-language translations of Eurocomics, Manga, and the like are also eligible in this category. I have a fairly generous definition of “contemporary,” and have set an admittedly quite arbitrary “cut-off date” of the year 2000, since anything that presents work from the previous century will fall into the category of —

Top Ten Vintage Collections – Same rules as above, just for pre-2000 stuff.

Top Ten Special Mentions – This is a new one I’ve never done before and is somewhat amorphous by definition, so by way of explanation I’ll just say it’s a list designed to highlight my favorite comics-adjacent releases of the year : work that’s done by cartoonists but doesn’t fit the traditional sequential-art format, or else publications that are about comics, but aren’t actually comics themselves.

Top Ten Graphic Novels – Last but certainly not least, this category has fairly strict limitations : every work in it is one which was designed from the outset to be presented in the “graphic novel” format, and cannot have been serialized anywhere else, either in print or online, since those sorts of things are already covered by the “Top Ten Contemporary Collections” designation. These are long-form, wholly original works only.

Are we good? I think we’re good. So let’s jump right in with the Top Ten Single Issues list —

10. Goiter #3 By Josh Pettinger (Self-Published) – The strongest comic yet from one of the most promising “emerging” cartoonists out there, I’m glad to see Pettinger moving away from his Clowes/Ware roots and find an authentic perspective all his own with this superb story about a young woman in love with — a chronologically-displaced floating head? Moving, smart, authentic, and deeply emotive work.

9. Rookie Moves By November Garcia (Self-Published) – Probably my favorite autobio cartoonist working today is at her best in this fun and funny (not to mention endlessly charming) mini focused on her transition from star-struck fan girl to “professional” comic artist — who’s still a star-struck fan girl. One of the most earnest and refreshingly un-pretentious reads of the year.

8. Rust Belt #4 By Sean Knickerbocker (Self-Published) – We’ve heard a lot this year about comics that capture the current MAGA-poisoned “cultural moment,” but for my money none succeeded so well as the fourth issue of Knickerbocker’s ongoing “solo anthology” series, as he casts his increasingly-sharp observational eye on the dual personalities of a guy who’s an average enough husband at home, and a rising right-wing social media “star” in his spare time. You know the people in this comic — and while that’s a damn depressing thing to consider, it makes for utterly compelling reading.

7. By Monday I’ll be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage By Laura Lannes (2dcloud) – The most exemplary collection of diary comics I had the pleasure to read in 2018, Lannes’ subtle and self-deprecating tone and smooth, fundamentally inventive cartooning chart the doomed trajectory of a Tinder “romance” in both real-time and a gorgeous, over-sized format. Remarkably restrained for something so personal, this one sticks in your mind long after     closing it.

6. From Crust Till Dawn By Sarah Romano Diehl (Self-Published) – The second chapter in Diehl’s ongoing memoir of her time as a pizza parlor employee unfolds with a dreamlike quality and ease that brings out the character, rather than the nuts-and-bolts specifics, of each instance it portrays — the end result being a joyously unique reading experience quite unlike anything else.

5. Cosmic BE-ING #6 By Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham enters her post-Angloid era with this awesomely bizarre and entirely singular look at the lives of the residents of her “Clown Castle” in the sky who will creep you out and crack you up in equal measure as they point out the absurdities of wage labor, group living, and other everyday taken-as-given situations large and small. The most assured effort yet from one of the most unique talents in cartooning today.

4. Tongues #2 By Anders Nilsen (Self-Published) – The most ambitious (thematically and visually) ongoing narrative in comics ups the mystery even as things come into view more clearly in its various and for-now-disparate plotlines. Gorgeously illustrated and colored, viscerally written, this is a true masterpiece-in-the-making that demands and rewards rigorous re-reading and examination.

3. Perfect Discipline And Unbending Loyalty By Tommi Parrish (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – In the space of just a couple of short years, Parrish has assumed comics’ mantle as the most astute chronicler of the emotional landscape of human interpersonal relations, and in this sumptuously-presented work they disarm, dissect, and ultimately empower their characters as they navigate generational differences with the same delicately understated honesty as they bring to their intuitive mapping of physical, sexual, and even mental intimacy between couples. Staggering, heartfelt, supremely confident work.

2. Frontier #17, Mother’s Walk By Lauren Weinstein (Youth In Decline) – Weinstein’s love letter to her newborn child is a testament to the power of motherhood and cartooning both as it traverses the eternal moment just before a new life enters this world in an elliptical fashion that encapsulates past, present, and future in an ever-present “now” that circles back in on itself and never ends — as is most certainly true of this comic itself, which breaks every pre-conceived notion still remaining as to what the medium is capable of. There’s been a lot of “hype” around this book recently — including from yours truly — but rest assured : none of it captures the full magnificence of all it contains, of all it is.

1. Now #4, Edited By Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics) – The most significant ongoing anthology in well over a decade, Reynolds puts it all together in this issue (with plenty of help from cartoonists like Roman Muradov, Julian Glander, Nathan Cowdry, Matthias Lehmann, Walt Holcombe, Tommi Parrish, and Brian Blomerth, among others), more than living up to the “mission statement” in his book’s title, but going one step further in the process — this isn’t just where comics are at now, it also shows where they’re going in the future. The best, most varied, most effectively curated (I term I try not to use at all, but employ here with absolute precision) assemblage of sequential art you’re going to come across in this year and probably just about any other, this is a shot across the bow, a challenge for everyone to “raise the bar” and make comics that are as confidently-realized as those on offer here.

Whew! Okay! That’s quite the run-down! And we’re just getting started! 2018 really has been an amazing year for comics, and narrowing down each of these lists to just ten “winners” has been a very difficult task indeed. I feel bad about some of the books that didn’t “make the cut,” but I’m very confident in everything I settled on, as well as the specific places they earned. I hope you agree with my selections, sure, but more than that — I hope you’ve found some great new comics to add to your “must-buy” list!

Next up — Top Ten Ongoing Series! I’m aiming to have that list up tomorrow!

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 09/16/2018 – 09/22/2018, “Now” #4 And New Minis From Brian Canini

From the best anthology comic in a decade to the best ongoing mini, this week had plenty to offer yours truly. It’s late as I write this, I’m tired, but I’m also enthused to talk comics, so let’s do just that —

I’m not sure what it is about fourth issues of anthologies, but in much the same way that Kramers Ergot #4 threw down the gauntlet and shouted “this is where comics are now, and this is where comics are going — dare you to stop us!” way back in the halcyon days of 2008, editor Eric Reynolds has assembled the very best of the best of veteran and emerging contemporary cartoonists to make much the same declaration here in 2018 with Now #4, which marks not only the (temporary?) pinnacle of this Fantagraphics series to date, but also something of a high-water mark for the anthology format in general. Anyone who wants to keep up is going to have their work cut out for them, as there’s not a false note on offer here, and the occasional “clunkers” that made their way into the first three issues are literally nowhere to be found. Yes, that’s really me saying that, while some strips in this collection are no doubt more successful than others in terms of achieving their aims, literally every single one of them is at the very least good, and several are bona fide revelations. The pages between Trenton Doyle Hancock’s visceral gut-punch of a cover and Nick Thorburn’s all-too-true back cover are loaded with creativity that ranges from the sublime to the explosive, and if you’re looking for a temperature-gauge of the overall health and vitality of the medium in general, this is evidence that, for all the hand-wringing going on in (and about) comics these days, things have arguably never been better for those willing to travel off the beaten path.

I don’t usually do this, but — “A+” marks  go to Brian Blomerth’s staggeringly inventive visual tour-de-force “Pray For Pianoland,” Julian Glander’s wistful and breathtakingly-realized “Skybaby,” Diego Agrimbau and Lucas Varela’s multi-layered metafictional mind-fuck “The Absolute Truth,” Nathan Cowdry’s two entries, the melancholic “I Thought Of You All The Way Down” and the uniquely acerbic “Kewpie,” Theo Ellsworth’s nightmarish-yet-innocent (and vice-versa) “What Are You Doing?,” Roman Muradov’s gorgeous and devilishly clever “Quarters,” and Tommi Parrish’s searingly understated and achingly human untitled relationship autopsy ; solid “A” grades are awarded Cynthia Alfonso’s minimalist and deeply resonant “From Noise To White,” Walt Holcombe’s refreshingly unpretentious autobiographical paean to the joys of meditation, “I Am Bananas,” Matthias Lehmann’s richly-delineated and thematically complex “The Cave,” Rebecca W. Kirby’s sumptuous and soul-baring “Waves,” and David Alvarado’s crisp, embarrassingly true-to-life “Afterschool Special,” the only “throwback”-style strip in the bunch; and pulling up what passes for the “rear” with “B” grades are John Ohannesian’s lavishly-rendered short humor strip, “30,000 Years Ago,” Maria Medem’s block-color feast of paranoia and apprehension, “Maimed Gaze,” and the second installment of J.C. Menu’s cartoon dream diary, “S.O.S. Suitcases,” which is such a leaps-and-bounds improvement over the one presented “way” back in issue number one that I almost feel like giving him extra points just for surpassing expectations.

Throw in a near-suicidally-generous cover price of $9.99 for 128 pages and what you’ve got here is very probably the “must-buy” comic of the year — or even of the last several. Now has hit a stride few anthologies ever manage in a remarkably short period of time, and is absolutely brimming over with vitality at this point. We are so damn lucky to have this series, and now that Reynolds has his feet firmly under him and has managed to fully differentiate his current project from his earlier (and justly legendary) MOME, all I can say is — watch out. We appear to be in the presence of one of the all-time greats here.

Brian Canini’s Plastic People #6 continues the meticulous world-building that is the backbone of what I’ve made no secret is my favorite ongoing mini. Yeah, this issue is pure “side-step” that doesn’t advance the plot in any appreciable way, focusing as it does on a double-date between our two “surgical police” protagonists and their significant others, but it’s a fun exit off the main narrative’s thoroughfare that adds depth, nuance, and even a little complexity both to the personal lives of the people we’re getting to know, and to the nightmarishly phony future L.A. that they inhabit. You could probably skip this issue and get away with it in terms of keeping up, but at just $1.99 there’s really no reason to do that.

By contrast, Plastic People #7 is easily the weakest chapter in the ongoing saga to date, although we do return to propelling the murder-mystery plot forward in this one and Canini’s cartooning is, as ever, strong, clean, and economical in its precision. Still, when you see “future” residents of Tinseltown still, like, saying “like” all the, like, time — and, even more embarrassingly, still using terms like “amazeballs” — something tells me that not enough thought has gone into extrapolating some type of unique dialect that will surely develop over time. I’m not saying everything’s gotta be as intricately-woven as the visionary sci-fi linguistics that Alan Moore developed for The Ballad Of Halo Jones or Crossed + One Hundred, but seriously — slang terms come and go, and some of the ones we see here are already pretty well on the way out.

Even more annoying : the entire narrative trajectory of this issue is rather cynically constructed in service of a cheap punchline on the last page that you’ll see coming a mile away. It’s not like Canini to be this painfully obvious, and it’s rather disappointing to see, but let’s give him his due — seven issues in with only one misstep is a pretty good ratio, and I see no reason to think this one isn’t an unfortunate aberration that he’ll quickly brush aside. This is still a great series, that just happens to have one pretty damn lousy issue. No reason to jump ship at all, and hey, at least this one is still just two bucks, as well.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again : the law of averages dictates that Canini’s Blirps probably should have been a “one-and-done” deal, but somehow he keeps milking way more fun out of this fairly simple premise than I ever would have thought possible. More four-panel “gag” strips featuring neurotic and obsessive robot monsters are what you get here, and every one of them is damn funny and too charming for its own good. So, ya know, don’t even listen to me anymore, Brian — keep making these as long as you feel like, because they keep on hitting all the right notes. $1.99 for a full-color mini is also a pretty nice buy in today’s comics economy.

And with that, we come to the end of another Round-Up column. Next week’s selections remain entirely up in the air, as I’ve received some very nice-looking stuff in the mail recently, but won’t have much time to start reading any of it until tomorrow evening. What I particularly like, or particularly dislike, we’ll talk about here in seven short days, if that’s cool with you — or even if it’s not. in the meantime —

Now #4 will be hitting your LCS shelves on Wednesday and is, as already stated, the very definition of an essential purchase, while Brain Canini’s minis are, as always,  available via his Drunken Cat Comics imprint, which has a Storenvy site at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/