Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Vintage Collections

Moving right along with our 2021 round-up, we arrive at the TOP TEN VINTAGE COLLECTIONS list. The rules for this category are as simple as they are arbitrary on my part : basically, any book which collects and/or presents comics material originally published prior to the year 2000 fits my definition of “vintage.” One of these years I should probably bump that up by a decade or so, but this is not that year. This category also includes translated works such as manga, Eurocomics, and the like, provided they’re chronologically appropriate. And with that out of the way, here’s what we’ve got :

10. Scoop Scuttle And His Pals : The Crackpot Comics Of Basil Wolverton, Edited By Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics) – A legitimately uproarious collection or little-seen early Wolverton humor strips meticulously restored and overseen by the comics historian who knows his work best, these are admittedly not as outrageously OTT as what would come later, but stand well enough on their own to mark this book as more than simply a compendium of early-days curiosities. If there’s not enough fun stuff in your current reading pile, picking this up will surely rectify that situation immediately.

9. Alberto Breccia’s Dracula, Translated By Jamie Richards (Fantagraphics) – Lavish wordless strips from the Argentinian master that place history’s most infamous vampire in conflict with the dual soul-crushing forces of military dictatorship and US commercial imperialism, this was both gutsy stuff for its time and, as it turns out, a prescient warning about the future. Even Breccia’s funniest work packs a conceptual wallop.

8. Red Flowers By Yoshiharu Tsuge, Translated By Ryan Holmberg (Drawn+Quarterly) – After dabbling in genre for his earliest stores, Tsuge left its safe confines to create these emotionally immersive tales informed by his own travels, and the results are still several levels above the merely “impressive” to this day. I’d say something about witnessing the flowering of an artist’s talents, but surely that would be too painfully obvious for its own good, wouldn’t it? Except I sort of just did. Whoops.

7. My Life & Times : Spain Vol. 3 By Spain Rodriguez, Edited By Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics) The most recent volume of Rosenkranz’ exhaustive Spain retrospective is also the best, focusing as it does primarily on the underground master’s autobiographical comics. Gorgeously restored and thoughtfully presented, this is the “deluxe treatment” this work has long been deserving of.

6. The Biologic Show By Al Columbia (Hollow Press) – Apparently the cartoonist himself is none too pleased with this collection for reasons I’m not privy to, but damn if I wasn’t impressed. One of the most disquieting series ever produced as well as one of the finest auteur works of the 1990s, having this material back in print is something for which all of us not named Al Columbia should be incredibly thankful.

5. BugHouse Book One By Steve Lafler (Cat Head Comics) – Bridging the 1990s/early 2000s divide but with very much a 1950s Beatnik “vibe” to it, Lafler’s under-appreciated gem of a series is richly deserving of finding a broader audience. Jazz, drugs, femmes fatales — there’s no telling which is more dangerous in this unassumingly, and unquestionably, visionary comic.

4. It’s Life As I See It : Black Cartoonists In Chicago 1940-1980, Edited By Dan Nadel (New York Review Comics) – Released in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition of the same name, Nadel’s superb collection features everything from political cartooning to newspaper strips to undergrounds to downright mainstream-leaning fare and presents a comprehensive and engrossing view of the rich cartooning history that’s been an integral part of the Black experience in Chicago. There are names both familiar and less so on offer in these pages, as well as plenty of work that’s seldom been made available outside the city itself, making this the definition of an “essential” read.

3. Jimbo : Adventures In Paradise By Gary Panter (New York Review Comics) – Unquestionably the most influential book on this list, there’s no underestimating the impact of Panter’s masterwork on generations of cartoonists who followed in its (and his) wake. Some unfortunate production errors on the part of the publisher (including cropped-off artwork) prevent this from being ranked higher than it deserves to be, but its nevertheless a fairly decent presentation of one of the best comics every made by anyone.

2. Enigma : The Definitive Edition By Peter Milligan And Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse/Berger Books) – The finest mainstream comic of the 1990s finally gets its due with an impressive presentation that may leave a bit to be desired in terms of color reproduction and page size, but still represents a more comprehensive package than fans of this cult classic (myself included) probably had any right to hope for. More than the “British Invasion” mind-fuck to end all “British Invasion” mind-fucks (although it sure is that), Milligan and Fegredo’s magnum opus is a labyrinthine, clever, and hilarious meditation on identity, reality creation, and the nature of meaning itself in a postmodern world.
1. Trots And Bonnie By Shary Flenniken, Edited By Norman Hathaway (New York Review Comics) – If “long overdue” is a running theme here, no collection fits that description better than this deluxe oversized presentation of Flenniken’s groundbreaking National Lampoon classic. “Irreverent” is the most polite way to put it when it comes to these strips — “beyond good and evil” might be more like it. Obliterating all boundaries of taste (good and otherwise), Flenniken created a comic whose power to shock and disturb is only exceeded by its ability to make you laugh your ass off and empathize with its characters. Like nothing else, before or since.

We’ve got two lists left to go, for TOP TEN CONTEMPORAY COLLECTIONS and TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS, and my plan is to get them both done in the next day or two. Until then, it’s my duty to remind you that ALL of these are “brought to you” by 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. 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

See What The Buzz Is About : Steve Lafler’s “BugHouse” Book One

It’s always a treat when a staple of your reading youth (and in this case I use the term “youth” advisedly, as I was well into my twenties when the series in question originally saw print) becomes available again for a new generation to enjoy — or for members of your own generation who may have missed out on it the first time around to finally discover for themselves. There’s bound to be a bit of risk involved in re-visiting something you hold in high esteem, though, isn’t there? I mean, a person’s tastes and expectations change over time, there’s no doubt about that — or at least they damn well should — so what appealed to you at age 25 stands a very real chance of just not doing the job for your 40-something self. Above and beyond that, though, there’s also a very real possibility that changing times in a general sense can blunt the efficacy of a former favorite, rendering it quaint at best, archaic at worst, through no fault of its own. And then, ya know, something could simply be not as good as you remember it being.

All of which is to say that, even though I look back on Steve Lafler’s BugHouse (which I first followed in single-issue “floppies” put out by Lafler’s own Cat-Head Comics imprint in the 1990s and then as a trilogy of graphic novels published by Top Shelf in the 2000s) with a tremendous degree of fondness, nostalgia alone isn’t enough to earn his hot-off-the-presses new printing of BugHouse Book One — which, in true “return to roots” form, he’s self-published —a glowing review from my middle-aged iteration, hardened and perhaps even made overly-critical by years in the comic book review game as I now am. The book has still gotta earn its keep based on its merits alone.

Within a few pages, though, my worries about how well it would hold up well and truly dissipated. Sure, a rush of memories came flooding back as I re-acquainted myself with tenor sax-man (sorry, -insect) supreme Jimmy Watt and his supporting cast of loveable beatnik miscreants as they attempt to make the leap from the “Big Band” era into the newfangled world of jazz — and to resist temptations of both the narcotic and femme fatale variety as they navigate the emerging musical and cultural landscape — but this wasn’t simply a case of something being “every bit as good now as it was then.” No, friends, this comic is even better than I remembered it being.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that my appreciation for what Lafler has achieved here is even greater now than it was at the time. Simply put, this is downright sublime cartooning that would — hell, that does — rise well above the pack in any era. Like Jimmy Watt himself, Lafler is at his best when he is both firmly in control and improvising in equal measure, and while there is a very definite narrative trajectory to this story, it’s in no way hurried or forced along. Lafler knows which “beats” he wants to hit, and trusts in his ability to bring them out rather than make them happen, and that makes all the difference in the world. He sets the tempo with strong, instantly-memorable characters, snappy dialogue, an absorbing premise, and flat-out virtuoso cartooning that puts you right inside the spaces (physical, mental, and emotional) his coterie of anthropomorphic insects are inhabiting, and from there, well — it’s pure comic book jazz.

Now, like any good jam session there are an awful lot of moving parts, but the beauty of the comics medium is that you can absorb each in your own time, so by all means — don’t be afraid to linger on the rich texturing and shading in any given panel, or the smooth flow of Lafler’s brush line. Take a moment to savor a particularly clever and well-timed line of dialogue. There’s a flow to this work, to be sure — one often as subtle as it is inexorable — but that doesn’t mean that you can’t and shouldn’t establish a rhythm of your own, as well. After all, a performer is nothing without an audience, and I defy anyone to sit through this performance without feeling the distinct urge to get up out of their seat and clap on any number of occasions.

A lot has changed since Lafler first put pen to paper and created what remains his magnum opus, but trust me when I say that it singles itself out as being utterly unique and special now just as it did then. This is a comic that transports you to a very singular and spectacularly-realized place and time and holds you fast to the point where you quite literally don’t want to leave. I felt absolutely privileged to pay a return visit to Lafler’s world, and envious of those who will be having the pleasure of experiencing it for the first time. Now more than ever, this stands out as one more the most purely enjoyable comics that I’ve ever read in my life.


BugHouse Book One is available for $16.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at

Review wrist check – I couldn’t be happier with my latest acquisition, the Stella “Felix,” in the dial color they call “Downtown Red,” riding Stella’s own factory-issue black leather strap with cream-colored stitching. Of all the timepieces in my collection, this is probably the one best suited to a night out at the jazz club.