Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Single Issues

Is it that time of year again? Why yes, indeed, it is that time of year again — specifically, the end of the year, and with it my end-of-year “Top 10” lists. As usual, things are divvied up into six categories : Top 10 Single Issues (stand-alone comics or comics that are part of an ongoing series that saw only one issue published this year), Top 10 Ongoing Series (serialized comics that saw two or more issues published in the past year), Top 10 Special Mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books on comics history, art books or sketchbooks, or books that utilize words and pictures but don’t adhere to traditional rules of sequential storytelling), Top 10 Vintage Collections (books that reprint work originally published prior to the year 2000), Top 10 Contemporary Collections (books that reprint work originally published, physically or digitally, after the year 2000 and going right up to the present day), and Top 10 Original Graphic Novels (all-new books specifically constructed as graphic novels and were never serialized in installments). And with those ground rules out of the way, we’ll begin where we always do, with my choices for the year’s Top 10 single-issue or stand-alone comics :

10. Goiter #5 By Josh Pettinger (Tinto Press) – After four issues, Pettinger exits the self-publishing ranks and the extra time devoted purely to craft pays off with one of his most surreal and absorbing character studies yet, as an underemployed teen become an unemployed teen and sees his life spiral out of control after being roped into an extra-legal murder investigation. The spirit of Clowes and Ware lives on in this series, but Pettinger’s authorial concerns and cartooning are now well and truly entirely his own.

9. The Garden By Lane Yates And Garrett Young (Self-Published) – A mysterious and ethereal love/horror story that reveals new depths with each reading, this is the most alluring narrative puzzlebox in quite some time. For all the wonderful qualities Yates’ story possesses though, it may just be Young’s art that steals the show/seals the deal/pick your cliche, as it transports readers to a truly alien world populated with achingly human characters rendered in exquisitely moody detail.

8. Flop Sweat #1 By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom Books) – The first installment in what promises to be a gripping childhood memoir from Ward, exploring the roots of alienation and “otherness” with sensitivity, honesty, and even a bit of humor. Ward is well and truly coming into his own as memoirist, and you’d be well-advised to get in on the ground floor with this book before everybody’s all over it. That way you can say you’re a cool and astute reader, ya know?

7. Five Perennial Virtues #11 – Broken Pieces By David Tea (Self-Published) – Perhaps the greatest iconoclast in all of comics produces the strongest issue of his long-running series to date — as well as the most accessible. Part history lecture, part absurdist fantasy, and all Dave Tea, this feels very much like “outsider art” until you realize the author actually understands the comics form implicitly — he just refuses to play by many of its established rules.

6. Mini Kus! #91 – Sufficient Lucidity By Tommi Parrish (Kus!) – The modern master of navigating the complexities of interpersonal relationships via the comics medium, here Parrish takes us on a journey by dropping us off very nearly at the end of it. Lavishly illustrated and economically scripted, this is pure emotion on the page, and will haunt your dreams long after reading it.

5. Rotten By M.S. Harkness (Self-Published) – Another painfully embarrassing, to say nothing of painfully funny, slice-of-life comic from Harkness, this one hitting home with extra wallop due to its chronological setting : right around the 2016 election. Still, it’s Harkness’ consistently-fearless portrayal of herself that stands out as the book’s most memorable, if occasionally disconcerting, feature. If you haven’t tried one of her long-form graphic novels yet, this is the perfect smaller “sample size” to dip your toes in, and trust me when I say you’ll immediately want more.

4. Tad Martin #8 – Tears Of The Leather-Bound Saints By Casanova Frankenstein (Fantagraphics Underground) -Encompassing everything from dystopian industrial hellscapes to childhood memoir and all points in between, Frankenstein’s latest outing featuring his constantly-evolving authorial stand-in takes the form of a deliberately disjointed “tone poem,” a one-man anthology focused on various stages of personal apocalypse. Shot through with grotesque “gallows humor” and caustically accurate social commentary, this is another tour-de-force from arguably our most uncompromising contemporary cartoonist.

3. Malarkey #5 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Garcia closes out her masterful autobio series on a very high note amidst relentlessly dark times as she explores mortality from all sides, offering readers stories about life’s end in equal proportion to those centered around the little things that make life worth living. The pandemic looms large here but is, uncannily, never specifically referenced. Don’t ask me how she managed that — I’m just grateful that she did. No other comic captures the essence of life in 2020 like this one.

2. Theater Of Cruelty By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – A sprawling yet agonizingly insular look at the vagaries of life that haunt its author and frankly haunt us all, this is “solo anthology” comics at their finest, weaving a dense tapestry of darkness from threads of fable, poetry, ancestral memory, and autobio. As surely beyond classification as it is beyond good and evil, Oshima’s magnum opus leaves you reeling in silence.

1. Constantly By G.G. (Koyama Press) – A bit of a cheat as this was packaged as a slim book, but slim is the key word — as in, 48 pages. That puts it firmly in the “single issue” camp by my admittedly subjective standards, but it nevertheless leaves an indelible mark with its austere art and minimalist language combining to explore both the roots and manifestations of doubt and anxiety, portraying a world where all tasks are monumental and likely pointless. Haunted within and haunting without, this is comics poetry at its apex as a medium and a bona fide masterpiece for the ages.

I’ll let you all absorb this list for a few days before returning with my picks for the the Top 10 Ongoing Series of the year!


Review wrist check – Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “George” leather strap in brown from their “Performance” series.

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Casanova Frankenstein’s “Tears Of The Leather-Bound Saints” (“Tad Martin” #8) — What Happens After The Darkness Swallows You Whole?

I’ve often remarked — no, I swear, I have! — that the best cartoonists are those with no fucks left to give, but leave it to Casanova Frankenstein (or, if you’re old-fashioned, Al Frank) to prove me wrong : you see, he’s living proof that the best cartoonists are those who never had any fucks to give in the first place.

Long-time fans and admirers of Cassie’s Tad Martin work have suffered from an embarrassment of riches in recent years, beginning with Profanity Hill/Teenager Dinosaur issuing The Adventures Of Tad Martin #sicksicksix after nearly a two-decade publishing hiatus for the title, continuing through the artist self-publishing The Adventures Of Tad Martin Super-Secret Special #1 and, later, The Adventures Of Tad Martin Omnibus hardcover through Lulu, and culminating in Austin English’s Domino Books releasing the dreadfully gorgeous Tad Martin #7. In between all that, however, Gary Groth’s “street cred” imprint, Fantagraphics Underground, also unleashed on an undeserving world two purely autobio Frankenstein books, Purgatory and In The Wilderness, and their third release from the unofficial “granddaddy” of Austin underground cartooning, Tears Of The Leather-Bound Saints (officially listed in the copyright indicia as Tad Martin #8), falls somewhere between pure memoir and nightmarish hellscape, with little to differentiate the two thematically, even if the strips it presents — rotating as they do between those that feature Tad acting as stand-in for his creator and others that offer no such admittedly slight degree of removal — make it obvious. But, as you’ll soon see, “obvious” is probably not a word we want to use in relation to this comic, even when it applies.

Every Tad release is a re-invention of both character and cartoonist, and that trend continues here, even if the “production art” ethos of Tad Martin #7 not only carries over, but is amplified and accentuated, and things like the signature black “muscle” car and nihilistic attitude are, of course, present and accounted for. This time out, though, our anti-hero’s nihilism is given breadth, depth, context, and meaning — after all, if you worked at a dangerous factory producing units of your own death with no regard to employee safety or labor and fair-wage standards (Frankenstein makes clear that this particular shithole isn’t unionized), you’d have it in for the world, too.

Which brings us back to the whole “no fucks to give” thing — Tad, this time out, is his author at precisely that point in his mind, while the “early days” strips are tasked with explaining how he got there. How whiteness and family and bullying and school pushed him down into a hole that only punk could help him climb out of — albeit gradually and, it would seem, temporarily, in fits and spurts. The cartooning came later, and when I piece that chronology together, that’s how I come to my conclusion that giving a shit was a well that had run dry on Frankenstein’s  part well before he even started down his still-current road.

Does that mean this comic is “meta”? Yeah, I suppose that it does, but if you hold that against it, then that’s your loss. This represents both the apex and synthesis of everything Frankenstein’s been building up to, rendered in impeccably dulled-down and limited colors to reflect the world it takes place in, that being our own — as it really is. With all pretense, artifice, and bullshit stripped away. With the “man behind the curtain” showing in terms of both process and practice — note the exact reproductions of the boards Cassie drew and wrote this on, the cut-and-paste typography via which his “tone poem” narratives are presented. In stage magic and conspiracy theory this is referred to as the “revelation of the method.” Here we can just call it the way things are.

If I’d known the contents of this book ahead of time, I might have suggested Cassie call it The Secret Origin Of Tad Martin or somesuch, but in truth there are no secrets here, the interpretive, wordless, downward spiral of Tad #7 having put paid to that. Now, at the other side of dark phantasmagoria, all is laid bare : you go through years of torment, of humiliation, of questioning both identity and self (not the same thing), only to find that the promise of liberation, or even of self-negation (chemically induced or otherwise), was always a lie — we’re all cogs in a machine and the machine doesn’t care, Never will. Wasn’t built to. You can care about yourself if you wish — it may not even be the worst idea — but you’re still gonna end up in a pine box, and all those things that made you who you are gone in an instant, a universe of endless possibility reduced to the one from which it could never escape.

There’s a fair reading of this book that could conclude it’s a memoir of the artist’s coming to terms with his blackness in the face of the edifice that is white supremacy, and it’s not one I’m prepared to say isn’t there, but I think it’s both too broad and too narrow at the same time : this is a book about working-class blackness in a specific sense, yet it’s also about the plight of the working class generally. In which order and proportion I leave to you, but any way you slice it, from its noir stylings to it gorgeously rough-hewn assemblage and presentation (don’t let the slick cover fool you, this book is intensely lived-in) to its deliberately uneven rhyme and meter to its aura of perpetual and unending nightfall, this is singular stuff. So-called auteur comics at their most — I dunno, auteur-ish?

I asked a question in the title of this review and I’m now prepared to answer it — what happens after the darkness swallows you whole, as happened to Tad in #7? It pukes you back out at the exact same place you were before. The place you never left. The place you were always headed to. The scary part isn’t falling into the abyss — the scary part is realizing that it was inside you all along. And that it still is.


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Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Collected Editions (Contemporary)

After this, we’ve got two year-end lists to go — but we haven’t even done this one yet, so perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. My definition of “contemporary” collections is anything published from the year 2000 right up to the present day, and while many of the books that follow may very well fit your — or even my — definition of a “graphic novel,” the fact is that if they were originally published as serialized works, either in comics titles of their own or as part of anthologies, or if the strips presented in these books were culled from sources various and sundry, then this is the category they fall into by my entirely-unofficial rules. And with that, away we go —

10. The Sleep Gas By Chris Cajero Cilla (Fantagraphics Underground) – The spiritual successor to the likes of Doug Allen and Gary Leib, this welcome collection of Cilla’s often tough-to-find short works showcases precisely what he does best, namely crafting tales that are set in a world (or worlds) that are agonizingly familiar yet altogether alien, charming in the extreme but not without an element of the eerie to them. One of comics’ truly idiosyncratic talents who never produces anything less than “must-read” material, so yeah — this is a “must-read” book.

9. Rust Belt By Sean Knickerbocker (Secret Acres) – Nobody has their finger on the pulse of “flyover country” quite like Knickerbocker, and this slim but powerful collection showcases the best of his self-published series, introducing us to the dead end communities full of dead end jobs and dead end lives that find their only release valves via alcohol, opioids, crystal meth, and right-wing political demagogues. Read it and weep, but read it you most definitely should.

8. Rooftop Stew By Max Clotfelter (Birdcage Bottom Books) – It’s about goddamn time. Long one of the funniest, grossest, and most honest cartoonists around, Clotfelter can do everything from post-apocalyptic mutant humor strips to painfully resonant dysfunctional family autobio, and this collection is as seriously overdue as it is seriously amazing.

7. The Follies Of Richard Wadsworth By Nick Maandag (Drawn+Quarterly) – Nobody makes you laugh and squirm uncomfortably at the same time quite like Maandag, and his latest features everything from would-be college professors oblivious to their numerous and painfully obvious shortcomings to randy monks out to “enlighten” their co-ed monastery via decidedly earthly methods. Quite possibly the year’s funniest comic, yet painful to sit through in its own unique way at the same time.

6. Kramers Ergot 10 Edited By Sammy Harkham (Fantagraphics) – The venerable anthology returns in a generously oversized format and with an eclectic mix of the old and the new — from Frank King to R. Crumb to Kim Deitch to Anna Haifisch, it’s a tour through comics’ history and present. The single-strongest entry may come from editor Harkham himself, though, who provides a side-step to his long-running “Blood Of The Virgin” serial that actually turns out to be downright essential. There’s some questionable inclusions in here, sure, but if this turns out to be the end of the road for this title as has been rumored, then it’s definitely leaving on a high note.

5. The Anthology Of Mind By Tommi Musturi (Fantagraphics) – A truly gorgeous and equally truly subversive collection from one of the most multi-faceted talents in comics today, presenting everything from surrealist abstraction to lush painting to computerized pixelation to precise realism, all in service of narrative or non-narrative subject matter that’s never quite what you think it is — to the extent that you can even go into any given strip in this book with a preconceived idea, prepare for it to be dispensed with quickly and replaced with something altogether more wonderful and mysterious.

Image result for tad martin lulu

4. The Tad Martin Omnibus Edition By Casanova Frankenstein (Spook City/Lulu) – Okay, yes, including this one may be a bit of a “cheat” since the material it presents goes all the way back to the early ’90s, but the strongest section of the book is Frankenstein’s already-legendary #sicksicksix issue from just a few years ago, so —leave it to this one to defy my category classifications as easily as it defies just about anything and everything else. An exercise in constant re-invention, having this entire series (minus its just-published seventh installment) bound together in one volume is a gift from the cartooning gods that none of us deserve. Well and truly beneath the underground.

3. Glenn Ganges In : The River At Night By Kevin Huizenga (Drawn+Quarterly) – Springboarding off simple — or not so simple — insomnia, formalist master Huizenga takes us on a visually and thematically spectacular tour of consciousness, time, and everything it means to be a joyously, deliriously imperfect being. His finest outing with his stand-in protagonist yet, this is a clinic in how to engage audiences with the “heaviest” of topics while alienating or intimidating absolutely no one.

2. Press Enter To Continue By Ana Galvan (Fantagraphics) – Limning the entirety of the shape of things to come, Galvan’s all-too-plausible speculative strips combine innovate geometric design work, boldly incongruous color choices, corporate ownership of humans down to the cellular level, and the data-mining of consciousness itself to present a visually marvelous dystopia that’s as impossible to stop looking at as it is terrifying to consider.

1. Alienation By Ines Estrada (Fantagraphics) – A bold yet subtle exploration of what it means to be human in the digital age, Estrada’s rich graphite illustration looks even more gorgeous presented in the blue ink of this collected edition than it did in the black-and-white single issues, and the color “correction” also adds an extra emotive touch to what is both the most compelling comics love story in some time and a monumental and exhaustively-thought-through exercise in “world-building” — yet for all its narrative and visual sophistication, this book retains the core punk/DIY attitude and aesthetics that its creator is justly lauded for. Brimming with confidence as well as singularity of purpose and vision, this is an instant modern classic of the medium.

Up net we’ve got the top ten special mentions of the year, which is the category for all “comics adjacent” works, 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. It’s the best value going in original online writing and hey, it at least helps yours truly with a little beer money, so do check it out by directing your kind attention to





Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Collected Editions (Vintage)

Another day, another year-end “top ten” list. This time out is the year’s best vintage collected editions, in this case “vintage” meaning that the books in question collect works originally published prior to the year 2000. One of these years I suppose I should push that “cut-off date” up a bit, but for now, we’ll play it as it lays. And so, without further ado —

10. Alay-Oop By William Gropper (New York Review Comics) – Arguably the first graphic novel ever published, Gropper’s 1930 wordless morality play/love triangle drama is a tour de force of fluid visual storytelling, and the fact that it’s now available for contemporary audiences to re-discover is nothing short of a miracle.

9. That Miyoko Asagaya Feeling By Shinichi Abe (Black Hook Press) – A trailblazer in the field of autobio Manga, Abe’s early-1970s GARO strips are a moving testament to the power of inspiration and obsession, an exploration of the fine line between the two, and a fascinating historical record of a Tokyo Bohemian subculture that by and large no longer exists.

8. Ink & Anguish : A Jay Lynch Anthology By Jay Lynch With Ed Piskor And Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics) – An exhaustive collection of the late, great underground legend’s works that’s as poignant as it is funny, sure — but also eerily prescient in many respects. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and that’s a damn shame.

7. Return To Romance : The Strange Loves Stories Of Ogden Whitney Edited By Dan Nadel And Frank Santoro (New York Review Comics) – Love is a battlefield, sure, but in Whitney’s 1950s romance comics that battlefield is psychological, with women constantly battling their dueling inclinations toward freedom and domesticity, with the former leading to heartbreak, the latter to happiness. Exploding every one of the genre’s sexist tropes by taking them to their logical extremes, this is visionary stuff cleverly disguised as status quo reinforcement.

6. Tale Of The Beast By Tadao Tsuge (Black Hook Press) – The first English-language edition of Tsuge’s 1987 hard-boiled Manga noir is a visceral revelation that eschews typical “whodunnit?” structuring by showing us the guilty culprit from the outset — yet it never fails to surprise at every turn. A visual and narrative marvel that oozes darkness and menace from every panel.

5. In The Wilderness By Casanova Frankenstein (Fantagraphics Underground) – Before creating his stand-in (okay, sometime stand-in) character of Tad Martin, Frankenstein was churning out these late-1980s/early-1990s autobio strips that are imbued with such direct immediacy that the act of committing them to paper feels and reads more like an exorcism than anything else. DIY comics before the term was known, these stories breathe a kind of fire that time and distance can’t diminish.

4. Absolute Swamp Thing By Alan Moore Volume One By Alan Moore, Stephen R. Bissette, John Totleben, Rick Veitch, Shawn McManus, And Dan Day (DC/Vertigo) – This long-awaited deluxe presentation of one of the transformative works in the history of the medium is every bit as gorgeous as anyone could hope for, but I really wish DC (and some other publishers, to be fair) would get over this whole urge to re-color everything. Granted, if you’re gonna go the computer coloring route, Steve Oliff is the best there is, was, or will ever be — but rich and textured as his work here is, it still buries a lot of the detail in the inks that showed through in Tatjana Wood’s original hand-done colors, and there was absolutely no compelling reason to cast aside her terrific work, which frankly would really shine in this slick, oversized format. That being said — this is still a “must-own” book, and re-visiting this material never fails to yield new surprises and deepen one’s appreciation for its revolutionary approach to mainstream horror comics.

3. Walt And Skeezix : 1933 – 1934 By Frank King (Drawn+Quarterly) – Every volume in this wonderfully-restored chronological reprinting of Gasoline Alley has been sublime, but for my money this eighth installment in the series represents the period when King was absolutely firing on all cylinders. I think a lot of people probably owed their very survival during the Great Depression to this charmingly transcendent comic.

2. Doll By Guy Colwell (Fantagraphics Underground) – One of the overlooked gems in the history of the medium and arguably one of the last true undergrounds, Colwell’s late-1980s series remains perhaps the most smart and sensitive “sex comic” ever produced on this side of the Atlantic, his story not only accurately predicting the arrival of the “Real Doll” (Google it if you must), but addressing issues ranging from toxic masculinity to misogyny to female objectification and dehumanization at a time when many of his peers were still trading in all that crap for cheap laughs. Having this collected between two covers, with its gorgeous art reproduced at a generous size, is cause for genuine celebration.

1. DC Universe : The Bronze Age Omnibus By Jack Kirby (DC) – I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the “omnibus” format, generally finding it to be unwieldy in the extreme, but come on — who are we kidding? When you’ve got all of Kirby’s The DemonThe Losers, and OMAC collected together in one book, plus all kinds of one-offs and collaborations ranging from Dingbats Of Danger Street to Super Powers ? This one’s gonna win the top spot even if the damn thing weighs as much as a small child.

Next up we’ll do the year’s top ten contemporary collections, but until then please do your humble list-maker a favor and 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. Check it out by directing your kind attention to





Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

It’s that time of the year — specifically, the end of it. Or near enough, at any rate, for my purposes — those “purposes” being to survey the comics landscape and pick my favorites from 2019’s slate of offerings. As per the norm, I’ll be dividing things up into a veritable boat-load of different categories — top ten single issues (stand-alone comics, or ongoing projects that saw only one installment published in the last calendar year), top ten ongoing series (any comic series or “limited” series that saw two or more issues come out in 2019), top ten vintage collections (books presenting material originally published prior to the year 2000), top ten contemporary collections (books presenting material originally published after the year 2000), top ten special mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books about comics, art books, prose and/or visual works by cartoonists that aren’t exactly “comics” per se, etc.), and top ten original graphic novels (long-form original works never serialized in single issues) — and again, as per usual, we’ll kick things off with the top ten single issues list, with the others following in the coming days. Now, let’s stop dawdling and get down to business, shall we?

10. Kids With Guns #1 By Alex Nall (Self-Published) – The opening salvo of Nall’s first-ever ongoing serial instantly captured my attention with its strong characterization, sublime grasp on inter-generational relations, and oblique-but-effective social commentary, all rendered in his signature updated take on traditional “Sunday Funnies” cartooning. This project could go in any number of fascinating directions, and may or may not be about what its title implies. I’m looking forward to finding out.

9. Expelling My Truth By Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books) – Nobody employs exaggeration and absurdity to tell the “truth” about both modern life and themselves quite like Van Deusen, and in his latest, his trademark satirical wit has never been sharper while his line art has never been smoother. Always a study in contrasts, this guy, but he’s found an inimitable way to make his work’s deliberate and inherent contradictions become its raison d’etre.

8. Rodeo #1 By Evan Salazar (Self-Published) – Debuts don’t come much stronger than this one, as Salazar immediately establishes himself as a cartoonist with a unique perspective and a natural gift for storytelling, his tale of a temporary family break-up as seen through a particularly precocious child’s eyes revealing much more about what’s happening than a straight re-telling of the “facts” of the situation ever could. Emotionally and intellectually arresting in equal measure, and drawn in a confident, non-flashy style, this is one of the best single-creator anthology titles to come down the pipeline in many a year.

7. Stunt By Michael DeForge (Koyama Press) – I struggled with which category to put this one in, but eventually settled on single issues simply because it’s formatted like a Jack T. Chick tract even if it’s priced like a book — it’s also, in true DeForge fashion, imbued with a hell of a lot more philosophical depth than its page count would lead you to believe. A rumination on identity and its voluntary, even necessary, abandonment filtered through his usual lens of homoeroticism and gooey body horror, this short-form offering ranks right up there with the cartoonist’s most confidently-realized works.

6. Nabokova By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – It was such a strong and prolific year for Oshima that choosing a favorite among her works was tough, but in point of fact this is the one where she really “puts it all together” and delivers a treatise on alienation, self-absorption and the fine line between the two that’s every bit as dense as the Russian literature its title invokes — but it won’t, fortunately, take you all winter to to read it. Spellbinding stuff that will leave your head spinning with questions.

5. Castle Of The Beast By Ariel Cooper (Self-Published) – Fear of intimacy has never been delineated as beautifully or as sympathetically as it is in Cooper’s lush, breathtaking visual tone-poem that masterfully blends the concrete and the abstract into a comics experience quite unlike any other. Within a couple of years, this will be the cartoonist everyone is talking about

4. Tulpa By Grace Kroll (Self-Published) – It’s astonishing to see anyone bare their soul and their struggles as frankly as Kroll does in this, her first ever comic, but do so in a manner that brings forth genuine understanding rather than simply playing for sympathy? There are cartoonists that spend their whole careers struggling with what she achieves on her very first go-’round, and her singular art style is as smart as it is innovative.

3. For Real By James Romberger (Uncivilized Books) – The only thing more heroic than Jack Kirby’s characters was the man himself, and in this heartfelt tribute, master artist Romberger relates two harrowing life-and-death challenges The King faced in a manner than honors his style yet is in no way beholden to it. Another unforgettable comics experience by a cartoonist who never produces anything less.

2. Malarkey #4 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Long the champion of neurotic self-deprecation, by tracing the roots of both to her Catholic upbringing, Garcia ups the stakes — and the results — considerably and establishes herself as precisely what previous issues of this comic hinted she might become : the best autobio cartoonist in the business. And maybe even the heir apparent to the great Justin Green? In any case, her moment has well and truly arrived. Now, will somebody get busy collecting all her stuff into a book, please?

1. Tad Martin #7 By Casanova Frankenstein (Domino Books)  – I could say that seeing Frankenstein and his nominally stand-in protagonist matched up with the production values they so richly deserve is a “dream come true,” but this gorgeous, full-color, oversized comic is actually a nightmare come to life — and harrowing, soul-searing life at that. Always an exercise in re-invention, this issue of Tad combines elements of all the previous entries in this sporadic series into a comprehensive vision of nihilism as the only thing worth living for. Other cartoonists will have to fight for a place edging toward the middle — the margins of the medium are already spoken for.

And so we’re off to the races with “Top Ten” week. I’ll be tackling the best ongoing series next, but in the meantime do 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. Please do yourself — and, who are we kidding, me — a favor by checking it out at


See It Or Fold : Casanova Frankenstein’s “Tad Martin” #7

So here’s the thing — I’ve reviewed this comic on this site already. But I haven’t reviewed this comic on this site already.

I realize that demands an explanation, so by way of such : Casanova Frankenstein self-published a “rough cut” of the book that would later become Tad Martin #7 in the form of something called The Adventures Of Tad Martin Super-Secret Special #1 about a year or so back and, being a junkie for all things featuring comics’ most endearing junkie character, I jumped on it right away, loved it every bit as much as I was figuring I would, and gave it a glowing write-up — that I’d actually prefer you not to read, hence the absence of any link to it.

The reason for that is simple : this is the way this comic was meant to be experienced. Austin English’s Domino Books pulled out all the stops for this version, knowing they had something truly memorable, unique, and maybe even combustible on their hands : oversized format, high-quality paper, heavy cover stock, and best of all — full, searing color. Get a ten dollar bill out of your wallet now, because you’re gonna be itching to spend it on this by the time we’re through here.

The ostensible focus of Frankenstein’s wordless narrative herein is a Halloween story entitled — well, “A Halloween Story,” but the vaguely degenerate costume bash that bad attitude king Tad attends is really just a springboard into an amputee (in the mental and emotional, as well as physical sense of that word) abyss, a phantasmagoria of wonders both parochial and profound, and of horrors both plain as day and thematically, conceptually complex; the sort of hellscape that draws you in with a veiled whisper backed up by a gravitational pull of inexorable strength, with no signposts to be found anywhere on the way down. Rest assured, though : if there are “off-ramps” branching off from this highway to hell, none of them are any safer than the straight descent itself.

Frankenstein has always managed to do something different in each of his outings with Tad over their nearly three decades “together,” but this represents the purest dystopian vision of both artist and protagonist yet, the harrowing autobio of the most recent iteration of the sporadic series, #sicksicksix, abandoned in favor of something even more honest and immediate : a direct transmission from id to pencil, pen, and brush to paper. If you want to know what it feels like to mainline a cartoonist’s nightmares, you’ve come to the right place.

And while we’re talking cartooning, Frankenstein’s has never been stronger — inky blacks thick as night, detailed yet not belabored figure drawings and faces, page layouts that bob and weave between the highly traditional and utterly innovative, demonic apparitions and entities rendered with an understated virtuosity that implies (or maybe even directly states) intimate first-hand knowledge of same. The recent — and highly recommended — Fantagraphics Underground collection In The Wilderness showed what Frankenstein was up to when the comics world assumed he was up to nothing, and this is the fully-formed work that emerged from the other end of his self-imposed “exile on main street” : a staggeringly confident and visceral, inimitable statement of artistic intent that is through taking prisoners and is, instead, well and truly out for its pound of flesh.

And yet anger seldom seems to enter into the equation : rather, Tad’s stock in trade is a kind of emotional hedonism, a desire to experience all aspects of life through the eyes of others while fronting a passive and observational bit of play-acting himself. On the one hand, yeah, he could give a fuck about everyone and everything; on the other, he can’t resist an open door into your most intimate secrets, fears, foibles, and even kinks. He shows up to the Halloween party by himself but only because, one way or another, he’s taking everybody with him wherever he’s going next.

And while it would be saying too much to give away just where that is, much less whether or not both it and the journey to it are “real” as we understand that term, it doesn’t actually matter either way : our ticket’s been punched, and we’re along for the ride. It’s not an easy one, not a pleasant one, and most certainly not a guided one despite being in the company of an infamous ne’er do well  — but by the time it’s all said and done, you’ll realize it was never about him anyway, at least not in the direct, literal sense ; on the contrary, it’s about you, as a reader, being pushed well outside your “comfort zone” and seeing the infernal and heretical for what it’s always been : a reflection that shows all as it really is, and that accrues ever more power and mystique to itself the more we refuse to acknowledge it as such.


Tad Martin #7 is available for $10 from Domino Books at

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Forever The Outsider : Casanova Frankenstein’s “In The Wilderness”

It’s one thing to subsist on the societal, economic, even social margins for decades — it’s another to subsist on those margins and still not fit in.

Welcome to the life of Casanova Frankenstein, who “graduated” from being the only black nerd in his social milieu to the only black punk to the only black cartoonist. A man who’s on the outside looking in — at the other outsiders.

We all wondered what happened to the guy formerly known as Al Frank in the long interregnum between The Adventures Of Tad Martin #5 and its eventual follow-up, #sicksicksix over 20 years later, and the new Fantagraphics Underground collection of Frankenstein’s short autobio strips, In The Wilderness, fills in some of those blanks, as well as helps set the stage for what should, by all rights, be the year in which this long-neglected cartoonist finally gets something akin to his due. After all, his Lulu-published omnibus collection of Tad has recently hit, and there’s an all-new issue due later this year, a “raw cut” of which has already been released as The Adventures Of Tad Martin Super-Secret Special #1. Maybe, finally, it’s a good time to be Cassie Frankenstein.

Which rather flies in the face of most of these hard-luck and hard-scrabble stories, rife as they are with shitty jobs, shitty living circumstances, shitty relationships, and even shittier attempts at relationships. Really, the whole thing could easily come off as a litany of despair, except for one thing : Frankenstein simply refuses to allow it to be one.

And thank whatever god you may or may not believe in for that, because without his innate humor and sense of the absurd, his ability to find a kernel of humanity buried beneath even the thickest and most all-encompassing layers of misery, this really would be a damn tough slog. As things are, though? There’s something of a borderline celebratory tone to the work that seeps through when the strips are read in succession, as knowledge that he’ll never fit in gradually changes to begrudging acceptance of his situation to, finally, a “fuck off if you don’t like me, it matters to me not in the least” outlook that was probably a necessary view to develop not only for the sake of Frankenstein’s art, but for his continued emotional survival.

The exhaustive and superb interview conducted by Fanta head honcho Gary Groth with the cartoonist at the end of the book verifies some of these suspicions plus many more, but really, it’s not like the work itself is subtle or leaves you guessing in any way — this is raw, immediate, visceral stuff, unmediated by any considerations for its “end-users.” Trusting that your creative efforts will find an audience on its own terms takes guts, but it doesn’t seem like Frankenstein ever slowed down to the point where he even concerned himself with such prosaic trivialities. Most of these strips look and read as if made for an audience of one — that “one” being the auteur himself — and all evidence suggests that was precisely the case, as no quarter or compromise is either offered or, crucially, expected anywhere in the slap-dash scrawlings or guttural bare-bones prose that fills these pages. The cumulative effect may indeed be a gut-punch but, like all gut-punches, you’re damn well guaranteed to remember it — and this one comes from the gut, as well.

If you can’t get behind that, then get out of the way — these aren’t comics for the faint of heart, the weak of constitution, or the strong of conscience. In the gap between Tad’s two most “recent” issues, it appears the creator adopted many of the “nothin’ matters and what if it did” mannerisms and attitudes of his creation, and now your guess is as good as mine as to where the one ends and the other begins. There may be something at least semi-tragic about that, but it also seems inevitable, perhaps even advantageous, as one can’t really make it as a perpetual iconoclast-by-default and give too much of a fuck about — well, anything. Including oneself.

This, then, is nihilism as coping strategy, no doubt, but one adopted as a last resort.  Cassie Frankenstein doesn’t present himself as being necessarily likable, sympathetic, or even especially considerate or well-considered, but he does present an unfiltered view of who he was, became, now is — and I wouldn’t have him any other way.


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The Abyss Parties Also : Casanova Frankenstein’s “The Adventures Of Tad Martin Super-Secret Special” #1

Man, it’s been awhile.

Not as long a while as the gap — no, make that gulf — between Casanova Frankenstein’s The Adventures Of Tad Martin #5 and The Adventures Of Tad Martin #sicksicksix, a book that was literally a couple of decades in the making, but still — four or five years, by my count, is a pretty long wait. Still, as always with The Cartoonist Formerly Known As Al Frank, the wait has proven to be more than worth it.

That being said, in order to fully appreciate Frankenstein’s latest, entitled The Adventures Of Tad Martin Super-Secret Special #1, you have to be a bit of a “process-lover” — or, perhaps more accurately, a “progress lover,” as in “work in.” This is no place for fans of the polished, the refined, the sanitized — this is the straight dope, right from our guy Cassie’s subconscious to his pens and brushes to the page. A wordless channeling of pure nihilism — and not the cheap, rage-fueled nihilism of youth, but the considered, soul-deep nihilism of someone who knows damn well this is a fallen world but is nevertheless, perhaps paradoxically (and perhaps not), determined to enjoy the right straight down.

A Halloween party from hell is the setting, but more than that, it’s also a springboard — into the “world according to Tad” that those of us who’ve been following its fitful starts, stops, and continuations know well, sure, but there’s something underneath the full-time attitude, the black shades at night, the muscle cars, the old-school speed and bottom-shelf booze. Always master of his circumstances or at the very least acting the part, the phantasmagoria of ethereal depravity that Tad is subsumed by here is something altogether more dangerous, altogether more consequential, altogether more in general than even “Mr. Too Cool For School” can pretend doesn’t faze him. The game’s the same, but whatever is “playing” Tad here is playing for keeps.

This is exciting stuff — narratively, conceptually, maybe even theoretically — but you’ve gotta show up prepared to do a good deal of the “heavy lifting” yourself. Incongruous events collide against each other and propel the silent story “forward,” absolutely — but not only. As the shit swirls and spirals and spasms, there’s a sense that everything is happening in an ever-present “now” where prosaic notions such as linear time are left back not so much in the dust, but on the puke-encrusted floor. You can power through the whole thing in ten minutes, granted — even allowing for a fairly detailed perusal of the vintage “Super Gifts And Gimmicks”-style ad pages clipped from forgotten Bronze Age comics — but if you find yourself transfixed for hours, don’t be surprised. The not-quite-ready-for-prime-time art shifts styles, for a start, but also realities with it, and as you go with the flow through these choppy waters, you’ll find yourself succumbing to a siren call, an alluring invitation to give up and in at once, to see the bottom of the barrel not as the finish line, but as the starting point to a chemically-induced race down deep — really fucking deep — past the infernal pit, past everlasting fire, past even the void of nothing and into —

Shit, I dunno. The same place you started? Only nothing’s the same. Eyes wide open now, consensus reality stands revealed as the crock of utter nonsense you always figured it was, but the journey through complete uncertainty you’ve just been on? It’s made you more certain than ever. Maybe it’s all an illusion, this whole “everything we know” thing. Maybe it’s all a lie. Maybe it’s all a cruel joke. Maybe it’s all three.

And maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t matter.

This is gonna be a big year for fans of Cassie Frankenstein. He’s got a new book coming out from Fantagraphics Underground in May, and an “official” new issue of Tad hits sometime after that from our friend Austin English at Domino Books. If either are even half as good as this — and, in my experience, this guy’s stuff actually only gets better — it’s going to be a no-brainer who the most significant cartoonist of 2019 well be come calendar’s end.


The Adventures Of Tad Martin Super-Secret Special #1 comes in an over-sized magazine format on uncharacteristically (for Frankenstein’s stuff, at any rate) slick, glossy paper. “Publisher” Blurb ships these out quick, so as soon as you part with your ten bucks, expect to have it in a matter of days. Even faster is buying it digitally for the bargain price of $5.50. Here’s a link :

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