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!

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

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “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 https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

“Constantly” In Awe Of GG

As near as I can tell, the events depicted in GG’s new book, Constantly (her last for Koyama Press and officially the first great comic bearing a 2020 copyright date) all take place within the confines of the apartment or house occupied by its nameless protagonist, but in a less literal — but more accurate — sense, they take place within her mind, her heart and, if you subscribe to the concept, her soul. And they’re happening to a lot or people a lot of the time.

If you’ve ever been friends with, or loved, someone who suffers from depression — or if you suffer from it yourself — the contents of this slim-but-undoubtedly powerful volume are sure to hit home, but odds are that even if your life has been unscathed by the effects of it in any perspective, you’ll at least gain some valuable insights into its actualities thanks to the remarkable visual efficacy of GG’s depiction of it as a “B side” of one’s own existence, something that doesn’t necessarily occur to someone so much as it does with and alongside someone, a “constant companion” that shadows the person afflicted with it in all ways and at all times, a secondary way of experiencing everything that pre-supposes the worst about every experience and even potential experience, to the point where the purportedly “basic” act of, ya know, doing things seems inherently pointless, often explicitly counter-productive. You may have heard “depression’s a bitch,” but if you haven’t lived it yourself, well — I daresay this particular reading experience is as close as you wanna come to it.

To get this across — and to do so with an absolute minimum of words — is no easy task, but it’s one to which GG’s skill-set is perhaps uniquely suited, her masterful blend of high-contrast muted pastel colors, inventive use of space, physical minimalism, and translucent borderline-geometric shapes coalescing in a fashion that’s inherently subtle, but nevertheless packs a sledgehammer blow. This isn’t forceful visual storytelling by any means, but it’s no less powerful for that fact — hell, it’s no exaggeration to say that its “quiet spaces” are where its real power lies. Which means, yeah, this is sophisticated material, but it’s in no way alienating. I’d even go so far as to say that someone who is, for lack of a better readily-available term, “comics illiterate” will have no problem following along here on both an intellectual and, crucially, emotional level.

In a very real sense, then, even though we never get to know this person’s name, we get to know them, and to understand what they’re going through. In less skilled hands, I would suppose, marrying themes this universal to a story this undoubtedly personal would lead to a kind of internal tension, maybe even a conflict between the two, but you needn’t concern yourself with such “rookie mistakes” here — GG’s been carving out her own artistic space for so long now, and doing the kind of comics no one else can even conceive of, much less execute, that she’s achieved something not even every cartoonist bothers to aspire to, namely : mastery of form, function, and concept. Her way of telling a story is absolutely unique, disarmingly intimate, and unquestionably perfect — and that’s a term that I promise you’ll never hear me invoke unless it’s earned beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Of course, doubt is a constant in this work, but the way that doubt is expressed and communicated is never, well, in any. The calendar just turned, to be sure — we’re only four days in as I write this — but if even a small handful of 2020’s still-forthcoming offerings are this creatively confident, then this will prove to be, as Sinatra said, “a very good year.” Even if that should come to pass, though, GG’s latest will be in a class by itself by sheer dint of its ingenuity, its fluency in its own self-created language — you hear plenty of talk about how one determines if a cartoonist is at the “top of their game,” but at the end of the day I believe you simply know it when you see it, and you see it here from first page to last.

If I had any shame, I suppose I’d stop laying superlatives upon a text that depicts the turmoil of a person whose self-esteem and self-confidence are always and forever in question, but my primary responsibility as a critic is to call it as it is — and I have no hesitation whatsoever in labeling Constantly a bona fide masterpiece.

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “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 ongoing work, so if you’d be so kind as to take a moment to give it a look and consider joining up, I’d be very appreciative indeed.

Oh, an I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse