Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

So — here we are. The end of the road as far as our year-end “Top 10” lists go and, I would imagine, the one of most interest to the greatest number of readers — my picks for favorite original graphic novels of 2018, emphasis on the word “original.” One of our selections started life as a mini-comic, but was fleshed out greatly to become what it is today, while everything else on the list is a wholly original, not-previously-serialized work, designed and constructed especially for release in the “graphic novel” format. I think that’s about all the preamble required, so pardon me while I roll up my sleeves and type my ass off for a few minutes —

10. Monkey Chef By Mike Freiheit (Kilgore Books) – Our resident “rule-breaker” is first out of the gate, a book whose eventual greatness was hinted at in some self-published minis, but really came into its own when completed and collected between two covers. Freiheit’s autobiographical saga of his time cooking for primates (and their evolutionary descendants) in South Africa while falling in love with someone halfway across the world is possibly the most flat-out enjoyable read of the year, as well as a spectacular showcase for his fully-emerged skills as both illustrator and colorist. If Hollywood’s paying any attention, this would make a great movie — but it’ll always be an even better comic.

9. The Winner By Karl Stevens (Retrofit/Big Planet) – Another autobio book? Why yes, it is, and a downright spectacular one at that, as Stevens shines a brightly illuminating light on “the artist’s life” of underemployment, addiction/recovery, and the never-ending struggle to find both something worth saying and a way to say it. Illustrated in a breathtaking variety of styles with painstaking attention to detail as well as care and emotion to spare, this book is also an understated but deeply moving verbal and visual love poem to his wife and muse. Genuine tour de force stuff in every respect.

8. Poochytown By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)  – The first of three essentially wordless books on this list (take that to mean what you will about my own discipline as a reader — or, rather, lack thereof), Woodring’s latest excursion into the “Unifactor” results in his most harrowing, “trippy,” lushly-rendered, and hilarious “Frank” story yet. So goddamn charming it’s almost painful — but it’s the kind of pain that feels really good and looks even better.

7. I Am Young By M. Dean (Fantagraphics) – Heartfelt, bold, and addictively page-turning — to say nothing of absolutely gorgeous to look at — Dean’s examination of love’s sudden arrival and slow-burn diffusion is virtuoso work, each page replete with raw and honest emotion and eye-poppingly beautiful illustration. Love hurts, yeah, you know it and I know it — but you’re gonna love this book precisely for that fact, rather than in spite of it.

6. Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters By Alex Degen (Koyama Press) – A sci-fi silent movie rendered in lavish and explosive color that’s part breakneck adventure yarn, part dystopian nightmare, and all unique unto itself, Degen throws down a gauntlet here that few should even attempt to pick up, simply because no one else speaks his entirely self-created sequential art language. “Like nothing before or since” is the starting point of this book rather than the end result — go with its flow, and end up somewhere entirely and alluringly unexpected.

5. Lawns By Alex Nall (Kilgore Press) – One of the most exciting new talents to come along in the last few years, Nall “puts it all together” in his strongest work yet, a vaguely Lynch-ian examination of one small town resident’s quest to simply be left the fuck alone to live his life, his way. We’ve been hearing a lot about comics that capture the “cultural moment” in 2018, and while I intend no offense to works like Sabrina or A House In The Jungle, the simple truth of the matter is that, for my money, this book manages that task with much more humor, heart, and deceptive ease than its “fellow travelers” by a country mile. Where and who we are is a deep and profound question, of course, but equally important is whatever answer we come up with. I would submit that Nall hits the nail precisely on the head in that regard, and does so in a manner that almost anyone can relate to.

4. In Christ There Is No East Or West By Mike Taylor (Fantagraphics Underground) – This one arrived late and shook up the preliminary “running order” of my entire list more or less immediately. A metaphysical travelogue of the soul that journeys inward precisely at a time when so many comics are focused outward, Taylor’s book resonates so deeply and so strongly that reading it is akin to an epiphany — and the fact that it boasts arguably the finest production values of the year certainly doesn’t hurt, either. My God, that fold-out poster cover! Even leaving aside the bells and whistles, though, this is about as confident and unforgettable an artistic and philosophical statement of intent as you’re likely to encounter in this medium of ours this year — and possibly for many to come.

3. The Lie And How We Told It By Tommi Parrish (Fantagraphics) – Don’t let the amorphous and eternally transient (in every sense of the word) nature of Parrish’s dual protagonists fool you, this is a story that knows exactly what it’s doing, even if the characters in neither of its concurrent narratives seem to. Picture one raw nerve spread out over the course of well over a hundred pages and getting thinner and more frayed as it goes and you’re getting some idea of what’s going on in this comic, even though it’s ostensibly simply “about” two estranged friends catching up on their lives after a chance meeting, and the book one of them finds along the way. Parrish’s vibrant painted comics certainly have a singular look to them, but it’s the singular way the cartoonist grapples with issues of personal, sexual, gender, and body identity that makes them one of the most ground-breaking and challenging talents to come along in — just about ever, really.

2. Grip Vol. 1 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – A non-stop tidal wave of action, dynamism, and unapologetic feminism that leaves the need for dialogue and captions in the dust, Westvind manages to do something hitherto-unseen in this book by marrying superhero tropes with a salute to working women (particularly those in the so-called “blue collar” trades) to create the most visually stimulating comic of the year, but also one that fully engages the mind and heart as surely as it does the eyes. One of the most powerful comics to come down the pipeline in ages, actually, but ultimately even more notable for how empowering it is. Simply put — prepare to be blown away.

1. Qoberious Vol. 1 (Self-Published) – As thematically and conceptually dense as it is physically slim, the debut graphic novel by the mysterious (and pseudonymous) D.R.T., rendered in a style that most approximates the look of weathered or otherwise-muted animation cels, is something I honestly don’t think this medium has ever produced before : a work that not only reveals new depths with each successive re-read, but literally forces you to interpret and analyze it in entirely new ways. I’ve read it something like 20 times now, and no two experiences have been the same, even if certain themes (physical bondage, alienation from society, from family, and even from oneself) persist. Readers will be poring over this one for decades to come, unable to even verbalize the nature of the feelings it elicits, never mind how and why it manages to do so. An artifact from another, infinitely more artistically advanced, civilization than our own, language is too outmoded a tool for expressing the sheer sense of admiration and amazement I have for what is unquestionably my pick for book of the year.

And so — that’s 2018, boiled down to six lists. I read a lot of other good stuff, as well as plenty of crap, in the past 12 months, and would sincerely like to thank those of you who came along for the ride and made the first year of Four Color Apocalypse a bigger success (in terms of sheer readership numbers, at any rate) than I ever could have possibly imagined. Next week we get back down to business as usual, and start the long, but no doubt enjoyable, process of finding out what the best books of next year are going to be!

“Qoberious” Vol. 1 : A Mystery Wrapped In A Riddle Inside — You Know The Drill

Seattle-based cartoonist D.R.T. is a figure cloaked in a certain amount of intrigue — in a recent TCJ interview he revealed that his name is Daniel, that he has a background in film and animation, and that he suffered a debilitating stroke at age 27 that forced him to learn to draw all over again, this time with his non-dominant left hand. His debut graphic novel, then, Qoberious Vol. 1 (released under the auspices of his own self-publishing imprint, Kvorious Comics),  is something that can only be called a true labor of love — emphasis on the “labor.”

Crucially, though, it in no way feels belabored — indeed, the hermetically-sealed reality D.R.T. creates literally seems to have flowed directly from his subconscious onto the page, and in many ways even feels like a work channeled from some other, perhaps higher, dimension. There is a raw immediacy to this book that has more than a hint of compulsion to it, the work itself imbued with an overwhelming sense of necessity that all its polish (and it is a highly polished volume indeed, with intricately-detailed art presented on thick, glossy paper between textured covers) can’t diminish. You know what they say — “if it’s in you, it’s gotta come out.”

Just precisely what it is that has come out of D.R.T. is very much an open question, though — which is rather the point. His “people” aren’t really people as we know them — more humanoid/sheep hybrids. Likewise, the world they inhabit bears only fleeting resemblance to our own — I suppose it could be set in Africa, but what the hell? That’s only a guess based on the broadly-outlined tribal culture that seems to be the pre-eminent social paradigm on display. Even that’s up in the air, though, as direct inter-personal relationships are very much the centerpiece of this (extremely) loosely-constructed “narrative,” with any hints about a larger societal structure beyond, or even outside, of them being just that — hints.

You never really know, then, where or how characters exist in relation to each other here, which is dizzying enough in its own right, but that’s minor-league stuff compared to the simple fact that you, as a reader, never know where you sit in relation to, or within, the work itself. There is a deeply interpretive and frenetic introductory scene that drops us in at the deepest of deep ends, several pass-throughs necessary in order to even develop theories as to what might be going on, and then we find ourselves propelled through a series of short “single issues” that somehow connect with each other — but how they do so is more a matter of emotional and thematic connection rather than anything concrete. If you’re not up for a challenge, folks, then seriously — don’t bother.

I’ll tell you this much, though, without a hint of either hesitation or equivocation — if you are up for a challenge, Qoberious Vol. 1 presents any number of them, each equal parts compelling, unnerving, fascinating, and perplexing. D.R.T. is on the record as saying that he wants readers to pick up something new every time they read his book, but it doesn’t even take that long — there is such a high-octane informational assault coming at you from all sides here that you pick up something new in terms of how to analyze and interpret not just each page, but each panel, before your eyes have even moved on to the next one. This isn’t an especially long work by any means, but it’s an unfathomably deep one, with abstract geometries, intensely personal fetishes, fluctuating identities, and truly alien scenarios somehow coalescing into something that can’t truly be understood — simply because it presents so many options for how to understand it all at once.

There are certain constants throughout, though, that can’t be denied — the alienation that D.R.T.’s characters feel not only from one another but within themselves no doubt speaks to his stroke-recovery experience; the dissolution of physical forms, of environments, of individual agency, of reason itself more than likely emerges from the same wellspring of hard-won inspiration; the transition of scenes from martial and combative to the vaguely (and sometimes less-than-vaguely) sexual draws clear parallels to the power-exchange dynamics inherent in each, and to the terror and ecstasy that accompanies the surrendering of the self. Connections exist here, perhaps even patterns, but don’t expect a trail of bread crumbs to lead you to them — they can only be intuited, felt, absorbed.

This is heady stuff, to be sure, delineated with rich and painstaking precision, awash in deep-but-muted hues that give the proceedings the aura of, I dunno, a box of old animation cels discovered in a dusty attic corner, a curiosity lost to time and unearthed by someone who can only begin to grasp at the obsessions, concerns, and yes, the fetishes of the person who created them. This is a comic that invites endless speculation, then dares you to grapple with the repercussions of the potential explanations you’ve come up with — that revels in contradictions as a way of forcing you to confront same within yourself — that questions the phenomenon of identity itself while prizing its acquisition as the one and only thing worth striving for. It is like nothing else anyone has ever created, and therefore quite unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Nothing can prepare you for it. Nothing can guide you through it. Nothing can compare to it. Nothing can make you forget it.

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A “strongest possible recommendation” is not strong enough for D.R.T.’s Qoberious Vol. 1. This may be the best $20.00 you spend all year; not just on comics, but in general. Order it directly from the cartoonist himself at http://kvoriouscomics.bigcartel.com/