Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

We’re inching closer to being done with our monstrous year-end wrap, and with this, our next-to-last list, we’ll be taking a look at my top ten “special mentions” — that is, projects that have to do with comics, or are by cartoonists, but aren’t precisely comics per se in and of themselves. The term I settled on some time back was “comics-adjacent” works, and until something better comes to mind, I’m sticking with it. And so —

10. Folrath #3 By Zak Sally (La Mano 21) – The third and final “volume” of Sally’s riso-printed prose memoir of his life on the social, economic, and cultural margins in the early 1990s ably demonstrates that he’s every bit as gifted a writer as he is a cartoonist. I hated to see this end, but loved every page of it.

9. Bubbles #4 Edited By Brian Baynes (Self-Published) – Baynes came out of nowhere this year and started cranking out the best solo old-school ‘zine in recent memory, but with number four he brought in a small handful of contributors who all turned in exemplary work, and his interview subjects included one of my favorite of the “new crop” of indie cartoonists, Josh Pettinger, and long-time favorite Archer Prewitt, so this gets the nod as the best issue to date. Long may this project continue.

8. 2016-1960 By Jeff Zenick (Self-Published) – The ever-idiosyncratic Zenick’s latest illustration ‘zine presents a fascinating visual case study of changing social trends and customs via hand-rendered interpretations of high school and college yearbook portrait photos. Compelling and engrossing and maybe even a little bit wistful at the margins, this tells a strong story without resorting to so much as a single line of dialogue.

7. But Is It — Comic Aht? #2 Edited By Austin English And August Lipp (Domino Books) English and Lipp follow up a terrific debut issue issue with an even better sophomore effort, covering everything from EC to Anna Haifisch to weird 1990s kids’ comics to David Tea. Full disclosure : I’ve got a piece in this ‘zine, but it would have earned this spot easily regardless.

6. Crows By Jenny Zervakis (Self-Published) – A gorgeous but harrowing mix of prose and illustration that limns the collapse of a twenty-year marriage and the complete re-think of one’s life that goes along with it. As always, Zervakis finds a reason to go on via her love for nature — and nobody draws it better than she does.

5. Steve Gerber : Conversations Edited By Jason Sacks, Eric Hoffman, And Dominick Grace (University Press Of Mississippi) – The latest book in the long-running “Conversations With Comic Artists” series is also one of the best, presenting a career-spanning retrospective series of interviews with one of the most gifted writers and “far-out” thinkers in the history of the medium. If we see a “Gerber revival” of sorts in the future — and we damn well should — we can all point back to this as its starting point.

4. Bill Warren : Empire Of Monsters By Bill Schelly (Fantagraphics) – What turned out, sadly, to be the final project authored by noted comics and fandom historian Schelly was also one of his best, chronicling the life and times of the visionary publisher who brought the world everything from Famous Monsters to Blazing Combat. You hear the term “impossible to put down” a lot — this book really is just that.

3. Forlorn Toreador By E.A. Bethea (Self-Published) – The latest (and likely greatest, but hey — they’re all good) ‘zine from the endlessly creative Bethea is a poetic exploration of times, places, and people gone that utilizes an intuitively- assembled mixture of comics, prose, and portrait illustration to paint a picture of the world as it both was and is. You’ll miss reading it before it’s even over.

2. Brain Bats Of Venus : The Life And Comics Of Basil Wolverton Volume Two, 1942-1952 By Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics) – The second entry in Sadowski’s exhaustive biography of one of comics’ most legendary iconoclasts is painstakingly researched, engagingly written, and loaded with archival documents and well over a dozen fully-restored Wolverton stories that have never looked better. Somebody’s looking down on this “labor of love” project and smiling.

1. Loop Of The Sun By Daria Tessler (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – An ancient Egyptian myth of creation is brought to kaleidoscopic, phantasmagoric life in Tessler’s mixed-media masterpiece, a culmination of everything this visionary artist has been building up to in recent years. The most visually ambitious work to ever come out of a riso printer — and the most gorgeous book you’ll purchase this year.

Next up, we’ll wrap up our year-end review with a look at my choices for the top ten original graphic novels of 2019, 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. I make sure you get great value for your money, have no fear on that score, so do give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Caught In The “Loop Of The Sun”

Oversized, spiral-bound, and presented in a seismic flood of lavish riso-printed colors on exceptionally sturdy paper stock, Daria Tessler’s latest offering via artisan publisher Perfectly Acceptable Press, Loop Of The Sun, is a thing of beauty in the purely physical sense, it’s true — but as a self-contained sequential (though not strictly “comics” per se) story that  nevertheless fits comfortably within its creator’s larger ouevre, it stands out for both its thematic depth and transcendent visual auteurship. In other words, it may carry a $45 price tag, but there’s no doubt it’s worth every penny of that, and then some.

Tessler’s art has always existed at a self-created intersection between archaeology and alchemy, piecing together folkloric texts and historical artifacts in order to conjure something unique from disparate elements — and in this case, the subject being a creation myth from ancient Egypt proves to be an inspired choice for the most ambitious and assured entry in the cartoonist’s “canon” to date. Visually translating the birth of —well, everything, really — to the page is always a gargantuan task, of course, but at this point Tessler’s intuition is so sound that no matter how tightly-planned the visual and literary story structure, the end result still feels very much like a vision channeled from a cosmic source beyond the reach of most of us mere mortals.

And I use the word “mere” with precision, I assure you, because Tessler’s double-page spreads — incorporating elements of collage,  pen-and-ink (and maybe even graphite under there somewhere for all I know) illustration, and painting to create a truly phantasmagoric experience that goes well beyond the “psychedelic” and the “surreal” — make a reader feel small and insignificant and awestruck and back-handed by the power of some greater universal force in a way that no artist working in this medium (however one defines it) since Kirby has. Who, no coincidence, was one of the earliest cartoonists to express the cosmic by means of collage and to express the allegorical by means of the mythic.

That’s about where the comparison functionally ends, though, as Tessler opts for fluidity and self-referential looping, as the title to this work suggests — time, consequently, “moving” differently in a book such as this one than it does in any other, and ideas like “beginnings” and “endings” being left in the dust even in a story explicitly about the beginning of all things. How this works is something of a mystery to me, even after having spent hours pouring over the contents of this book — but work it does, and undeniably at that.

Also worthy of consideration is the fact that even though Tessler draws inspiration from decidedly external sources, the impetus to visually articulate them in such a singular manner can and must only come from within. There are perhaps any number of ways to interpret a story this old, but it’s a safer than safe bet that no one else would come up with anything like this, a virtuoso multi-media tour de force that whole-heartedly embraces the challenge of giving birth to the universe before our eyes and makes it seem an even more all-encompassing and frankly majestic act than it already is by definition.

This is one of those rare comics projects — or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a “comics-adjacent” project — that raises its game with every turn of the page, that “one-ups” itself not by force but as a matter of course. It might be over-stating things — not to mention socially awkward — to bow to the person who created it, but if Daria Tessler wanted to take one? That would be entirely appropriate and richly deserved.

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Loop Of The Sun is available for $45.00 from Perfectly Acceptable Press at http://perfectly-acceptable.com/item/loop-of-the-sun/

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 ongoing work, so please take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Kus! Week : “Plant Power” (S! #36)

I’ve never had an overwhelming interest in botany, and certainly don’t have much of a green thumb (to the probable chagrin of my neighbors), so if a plant-based comics anthology (I know, I know — the choice of wording on my part there makes it sound more like a meal, or even an honest-to-goodness diet) is going to win me over, well — it’s going to have to work pretty hard. But while the theme may be of little import to me personally, S! Baltic Comics Magazine always is, and so I was more than willing to put my disinterest aside and give the venerable “digest-sized portable art gallery” series’ latest volume, entitled Plant Power, a go — and whaddya know, talk about proof positive that I need to broaden my horizons!

Lote Vilma Vitina, whose recent entry in the Mini Kus! line also focused on nature and our relationship with/to it, provides the beautifully minimalist cover and carries that over into a sparsely poetic interior strip, but it’s not like there’s an editorial remit demanding uniformity in tone and style at work here — anything but, in fact. S! regular contributor Konig Lu Q. serves up a short and charming satirical story, the sublime Daria Tessler offers a mystical/alchemical look at the plant kingdom that’s rich with lavish detail, Patrick Kyle shows his passion for his subject matter in an uncharacteristically formal piece, Anna Sailamaa takes us on a gorgeous trip into a kind of fairy tale world, Jean de Wet lets the plants do the talking in a post-modern cautionary tale, Marlene Krause steps well outside of what I would consider (or maybe that should be assume, since I’ve seen only a little — too little, in fact — of her work) to be her artistic comfort zone with a crisp, tightly-focused offering — by running the gamut, we get a very comprehensive view of what our green friends not only mean to us, but are, human concerns and uses be damned.

As always, there are a number of names who are new to me in this collection — Ingrida Pikucane, Molly Fairhurst, Peony Gent, Pauls Rietums, Simon H, Vivianna Maria Stanislavska, and Valentine Gallardo have all landed on my radar screen for the first time, but their work herein is so strong that I’m hoping to see more of them very soon, while more established artists (to my mind, at any rate) such as Tor Brandt, Ward Zwart, Amandine Meyer, Disa Wallander, and the aforementioned Vitina all contribute strips that meet or, in many cases, exceed the high standards they’ve previously established for themselves. About the only entry that did well and truly nothing for me was Roman Muradov’s, and his body of work is so consistently eclectic that you honestly never know what you’re going to get from him. When he hits, he really hits, it’s true — but when he misses, he can miss by a country mile. His story here is a best classified as a “near miss” in that it’s easy enough to see what he’s going for, but his choices seem incongruous with achieving his aims. I give him big points for attempting something different — hey, he always does — but this particular strip could have done with a bit of a re-think, at least in this critic’s hopefully-humble opinion.

Visually speaking, everything presented between these covers is interesting — much of it’s even hauntingly beautiful — and evokes emotive and heartfelt responses to the subject matter it’s exploring. Not everything is gorgeous — although damn, so much of it is — but it’s all apropos of the central theme, and when you’re talking about an “art comics” anthology, what more can you really ask for?

And that’s actually a question that’s fair to ask of this collection in general — is there anything you’d like to see in an anthology of comics about plants that this edition of S! doesn’t have? I feel like all the thematic bases are well covered here, although given my own pre-disposition, it may be acurate, I suppose, to say that a real “botany nerd” might find these contents lacking in some way, shape, or form — but it’s hard to see where. Or how. Or why.

Color me green, then — and color me very impressed while you’re at it. I was expecting be far less engaged with this material than I typically am with S! offerings, but by the time I was done with it, I found it to be one of their strongest, most coherent, most powerful volumes yet. This is one you don’t want to miss — and I may even give it another considered look after mowing my lawn.

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Plant Power is available for $13.95 (worldwide shipping is free!) from the publisher at http://www.komikss.lv/

Also, 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. The link for that is https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

The Alchemy Of Opposing Forces : Daria Tessler’s “Cult Of The Ibis”

The generally-held view of the ancient mystical pseudo-scientific practice of alchemy is that it was all about turning lead into gold, but my understanding is that this is a rather limited “piece” of the overall alchemical project, which was largely concerned with creating that which didn’t exist before through the union of opposite polarities : male/female, animate/inanimate, precious metal/base metal, etc. Even that’s probably selling the whole “art” short, mind you, but for purposes of this review and its subject — Daria Tessler’s newly-released Fantagraphics Underground fancy hardcover graphic novel Cult Of The Ibis — it’ll do in a pinch.

We’ve lavished praise upon Tessler’s gorgeous riso-printed publications from Perfectly Acceptable Press on this site previously, but how well her rich, intricate style would translate both into the confines of more traditional “comic book” storytelling and, crucially, into black and white was an intriguing question for this critic as I went into this one, especially given that I didn’t read the two (I believe, at any rate) self-published single issues that constitute the first good chunk of it — but any concerns I may have momentarily entertained were dispelled with one look at her detailed, richly-textured pages that delineate a world right out of a Fritz Lang film, all mystical proto-“steampunk” cityscapes and biological curiosities oozing with the allure of the genuinely, even the conceptually, forbidden.

Hell, her nameless protagonist even reminded me of Peter Lorre, despite looking nothing like him.

The general character of the book itself can be summed up as an “alchemical caper,” as our amateur practitioner of the so-called “Great Work” pulls off a bank heist and then burns his debtors/crime partners by blowing the loot on a homemade, do-it-yourself homunculus kit, the pursuit — and eventual ascertainment — of which sends him spiraling into a hitherto-unseen mental and physical netherworld where what’s “real” or not is not only entirely subjective, but probably of little consequence in the scheme of things : it’s happening, and at some point whether the “playing field” of events is entirely within the hapless schlub’s mind or in the already-fantastical world he inhabits really stops being a point of concern.

Which is probably a roundabout way of giving Tessler a pretty damn grandiose, and entirely well-deserved, compliment : her visual storytelling sucks you in and doesn’t let you go, offering no option but for you to meet it on its own terms, but navigate your way through according to your perceptions and/or interpretations. That’s the kind of thing I’m always going to dig, of course, but like any alchemist, it is Tessler’s method that is fascinating as her finished work.

Which brings us back to that whole concept of the union of opposites : Tessler’s narrative is a study in contrasts, chief among them being single-panel “splash” pages vs. densely-packed (yet quite visually fluid) grids; extended wordless sequences vs. text-heavy (and archaically-scripted) mock “articles” from a bargain-basement “alchemy for beginners” magazine; solid buildings and streets vs. amorphous, transitory physical beings; easily-identifiable establishments such as bars and shops vs. the entirely indescribable patrons and goods within them. It’s a gutsy move, one that inherently reflects her book’s subject matter, and Tessler stakes the entire project on her ability to transmute these disparate elements into something greater, even altogether other, than the sum of its parts.

As to whether or not she pulls it off — that’s going to depend largely on any given reader’s own sensibilities, but for my money (or maybe that should be gold), she not only does so, but frankly manages to create something borderline-magnificent and utterly unique unto itself. I can see where a certain amount of frustration, even of disappointment, might enter into the equation for many a thoughtful and attentive adept seeking to crack the visual codes and mysteries on offer here, so oblique and left open to pure possibility are many of story’s key events, but if you’re ready to continue engaging with the book even after you’ve closed its covers — to let it wash over you and sink in before cracking it open and having another go — I think you’ll find that its after-effects are, if anything, just as mystical, perplexing, and wondrously confounding as its contents.

There are probably many good words one could use to describe a work of art that engenders this sort of careful consideration on both an intellectual and emotional level, but the one that seems most appropriate for this occasion, at least to my mind, is magical.

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We close things up with a quick reminder that this review, as well as all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly ramblings on the worlds of comics, film, television, literature, and politics. Lately, it’s been a lot of politics. Your support there not only helps to keep things going, but also enables me to keep a steady stream of free content coming both here and at my trashilmguru movie site, so join up already! Please?

Oh, here’s a link : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

And so we come to the most unusual of our year-end “Top 10” lists, this one looking at my ten favorite “special mentions” of 2018, and I suppose that some explanation is in order : simply put, a lot of great publications that came out of the comics world this year were, for lack of a better term (at least a better term than I can think of, you may fare better) “comics-adjacent,” in that they were by  cartoonists, but took the form of illustrated short stories, collections of drawings, etc. Also included in this category are publications about comics — ‘zines, scholarly works, and the like. Now then, with those ground rules in place —

10. Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South By Jeff Zenick (Self-Published) – One of the better pure illustrators working today, and one whose work consistently flies under the radar, Zenick’s collection of drawings based on mug shots found online of folks run afoul of the law below the Mason-Dixon line is his most conceptually “tight” offering to date, and captures the essential character of the desperation that leads to/ends in criminal activity far better than “mere” photographs ever could. A sobering, straight-forward look at the underbelly of society that most would rather pretend doesn’t exist.

9. Journal Of Smack (2018) By Andrea Lukic (Self-Published) – Lukic’s semi-regular journals are always fascinating, but her latest is like a “found object” from another time, place, and possibly even dimension, ostensibly telling an illustrated vampire story that circles back in on itself frequently — but what’s really going on here is something much deeper and more profound : preconceptions of what words and pictures can and even should do in juxtaposition are challenged head-on, shaken up, and re-arranged in new, unique, and even unsettling ways that are hard to explain, but undeniably powerful and instantly memorable.

8. Folrath #2 By Zak Sally (Self-Published) – The second installment in Sally’s ongoing prose memoir of his early-’90s “punk years” is no mere exercise in nostalgia for its own sake, but rather a gripping and evocative attempt to reconcile what one’s part even means — and how it never really leaves us, even when we think we’ve left it behind. The publication format here is also innovative and aesthetically pleasing, using riso printing and an “old-school” typeface to give the proceedings a wistful look that amplifies the tone of the writing.

7. But Is It — Comic Aht? Edited By Austin English (Domino Books) – Oh, hell yes ! The newsprint comics ‘zine had been in desperate need of a comeback for some time, and English is just the guy to resuscitate it. A thorough and comprehensive interview with the great Megan Kelso and an examination of the Mexican comics underground by Ines Estrada are the standout features to this critic, but the other reviews and articles are all tops, too. A true and obvious labor of love that you’re guaranteed, in turn, to love yourself.

6. Dog Nurse By Margot Ferrick (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of those rare “total packages” that has it all in terms of both form and content, Ferrick’s mysteriously heartwarming tale of a precocious but alienated child and her hired caretaker’s attempts to reach an understanding with her is lavishly illustrated, but equally lavishly presented between fastened hard covers on rich, French-fold pages. Well and truly stunning in every perspective.

5. Nocturne By Tara Booth (2dcloud) – Perhaps the closest thing on this list to a traditional “comics” narrative, Booth’s undeniably charming tale of a consequential evening in the life of a dominatrix, told by means of sequentially-arranged gouache paintings, is incredibly fluid, to be sure, but also far more conceptually dense than it may appear at first glance, incorporating themes of sexual identity, communal living, complex (and perhaps unhealthy) relationships with food, and body-image acceptance into a non-alienating, visually literate, wordless narrative. Some books leave a mark — this one casts a spell.

4. Accursed By Daria Tessler (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of the most gorgeous riso publications ever made, Tessler’s mind-bending visual interpretations of accompanying ancient Greek and Roman curses is a rich exploration of the timelessness of the urge for revenge rendered in a gorgeous and vibrant color palette that literally makes the already-“trippy” images achieve a kind of near-sentience as they draw you into a world unlike any other ever depicted. The die-cut cover with embossed ink and fold-out center spread will blow your mind if the contents haven’t already.

3. John, Dear By Laura Lannes (Retrofit/Big Planet) – A harrowing tale of emotional and psychological abuse manifesting itself outwardly in the form of physical deformation and mutation, Lannes has taken “body horror” to a whole new level by infusing it with social relevance — and her richly-black graphite renderings will not only take your breath away, but literally suck it right out of your body. I defy you to read this and not feel absolutely hollowed out afterwards.

2. The Woman Minotaur By Sara L. Jackson (Self-Published) – Sumptuous, beautiful, and horrifying all at once, Jackson’s painted short story revolving around themes of parental abandonment and alienation is as emotionally and psychologically charged as it is visually ambitious. A supremely self-assured work that establishes its own rules with fearlessness, integrity, and ingenuity, this is an entirely new form of artist-to-audience communication that goes right for the heart and twists it mercilessly.

1. Why Art? By Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics) – Asking, and answering, its titular question by means more allegorical than expository, Davis’ deceptively “simple” illustrations and sparse, economic narrative shave off anything and everything superfluous and consequently “mainline” her story directly into readers’ metaphorical veins with an immediacy so nonchalantly assumed that its sheer power is immediately and automatically taken as a given.  A work of singular and undeniable genius — and that’s a word you will only catch me using when it’s not only warranted, but frankly inescapable. Davis makes her strongest argument yet for being the cartoonist laureate of our times.

So there you have it — ten great comics that weren’t exactly comics. Next up is our final list of the year, focusing on original graphic novels. That goes up tomorrow night, and may surprise you just as much for what isn’t included on it as what is. How’s that for a teaser?

Daria Tessler Cooks Up A Storm With “Three Magical Recipes From The Book Of Secrets Of Albertus Magnus”

One of two semi-recent releases by Daria Tessler from Perfectly Acceptable Press (the other being Accursed, reviewed on this very site just a handful of days ago), the uneconomically-titled Three Magical Recipes From The Book Of Secrets Of Albertus Magnus is not only overflowing with verbiage on the cover, but wonderfully archaic script throughout and, most importantly and essentially, positively inspired artwork that casts a  thoroughly mesmerizing spell all its own on each and every of the book’s 28 riso-printed pages. Insanely colorful, imaginative, and engrossing, this is a project that is entirely what it espouses itself as being, yet also considerably more than anyone could justifiably be pre-disposed to hope for.

Yeah, it really is that good.

Exploding at readers in a kaleidoscopic explosion of red, fluorescent pink, yellow, and a tone of blue classified as “federal,” Tessler’s vibrant and immersive renderings of these, for lack of a better term, home-made alchemical prescriptions come to us undeserving souls by means of a kind of cosmic apothecary with precisely one pharmacist and patient both, with the (very) late Magnus laying out a blueprint, while his more-than-worthy successor navigates her way between the guideposts he’s laid out in a manner that can only be considered reverent, yet entirely unexpected. Don’t ask me how that works, all I can say is that this effect was discerned by yours truly immediately upon opening this slim-but-conceptually-overflowing volume’s handsome vellum cover. The onrush of a sense of absolute singularity is that apparent, that forceful, that undeniable.

Not, of course, that these “recipes” are in any way practical, but if you’re looking for that, you’re not bold or courageous enough to absorb the sheer thematic heft of this book in the first place. Tessler doesn’t “invite” you into the “sacred space” (a term that is not, I assure you, too grandiose in this instance, despite it admittedly sounding like precisely that) of her highly-personal interpretive imaginarium, she compels you toward its unexplored depths (or should that be heights?) in a manner bristling with such sheer confidence that it becomes self-evident from the outset that, to not exactly coin a phrase, “resistance is futile.”

Not, of course, that “resisting” is an option you’d even want to entertain. I frankly don’t care how much of a sober-minded rationalist you are, when confronted with evidence this incontrovertible that innovation and formal realization can not only happily co-exist, but feed off and into each other simultaneously, seamlessly, and relentlessly in ways literally never before conceived of until Tessler had the temerity and vision to do so is, or at least should be, all the proof required of the fact that, rare as it no doubt may be, magic is absolutely real and you just as absolutely know it when you see it, feel it, experience it, live it.

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Don’t let the initially jaw-dropping price point of $15 put you off for so much as a second, Three Magical Recipes From The Book Of Secrets Of Albertus Magnus is a bargain by any reasonable (or even otherwise) definition of the term. Not content to merely “expand your horizons,” Daria Tessler sets out to, and succeeds in, negating and redefining them in her stride. Prepare to emerge out the other side of her remarkable book as something and someone other than what you were before you read it. Now is the time to direct your browser’s (and your own) attention to http://perfectly-acceptable.com/item/book-of-secrets/

 

Daria Tessler’s Book Is Anything But “Accursed”

The whole package — you probably know it when you see it.

So, let’s run this hypothetical by you, shall we? You encounter a book with lavish, surreal, jaw-dropping art, presented in full, rich, eye-popping color. It features 18 pages, and a 26-inch center foldout, all riso-printed on heavy-duty recycled paper. The cover boasts foil-press embossing and a die-cut “window,” and the binding is hand-stitched, complete with beads and bells in the upper corner. Would that sound like the proverbial “whole package” to you? It would to me.

And that’s precisely what Daria Tessler’s remarkable Accursed, released earlier this year by the modern masters of truly deluxe small-press publishing at Chicago’s own Perfectly Acceptable Press, is.

Still, it’s all for naught if the contents of said publication don’t manage to live up to — hell, don’t prove themselves worthy of — their magnificent presentation. Especially when the asking price is a whopping $32. Thank goodness, then, that what we have here is the work of a true visionary.

I’m not sure why or how the idea to artistically interpret a series of ancient Greek and Roman curse tablets excavated from various archaeological digs comes to a person, but Tessler has long followed her creative muse into hitherto-uncharted (maybe that should even be hitherto-unimagined) territory, and not only is this no exception, it may even be fairly said to represent the culmination, even the apex, of her well and truly singular evolving aesthetic project. For some, the sky is the limit — for Tessler, it’s merely one more boundary to transcend, to overcome, to blast the fuck right through and leave eating her dust.

Seriously, my humble eyes have been well and truly privileged enough to have feasted upon many a visual marvel over the years, but this is in a class by, and unto, itself. Hallucinatory hellscapes of angst and torment may not lend themselves quickly or easily to being called “beautiful,” but these unequivocally are, and while their accompanying texts are no doubt archaic and sadistic in equal measure, there is also a starkly unforgiving poetry to them that the painfully harrowing, fever-dream illustrations magnify, amplify, transmogrify. This is suffering as art, as transcendence, as apotheosis. It hurts to look at and to read, but once you’ve done both, the idea of going back to a time before you’ve seen it becomes an act of cruel and unusual punishment to even consider.

Is there a lesson to be learned from this non-narrative assemblage of debilitating pain made cosmic in its scope and potential? Probably not in the strictest sense, but that in no way precludes this work from achieving “lasting impression” status in any given reader’s mind. That we exist in a world where the desire for “payback” can be so strong that it inadvertently finds its ages-old verbal expression transformed into something this unbearably gorgeous is strange thing to wrap one’s head around, indeed, but it’s nevertheless the reality we are confronted with as we make our through this phantasmagoria of wished-upon-the-stars hurt, and come out the other side with something akin to awe and wonder at the power — and frankly the timelessness — of revenge as a formerly-abstract concept made concrete, made inescapable, made immediate. Time may not diminish anger, but it can redirect its expression in ways entirely, and gloriously, unforeseen. This is all the proof you’ll ever need of that.

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Accursed is, sadly but completely understandably, sold out on its publisher’s website, but Daria Tessler herself has precisely one copy still available at her Etsy shop. Now, then, would be a good time to stop dawdling and get over to https://www.etsy.com/mx/listing/536722566/accursed-book

 

“Now” We’re Talking

As any long-time reader of purportedly “alternative” and/or “indie” comics can tell you, one of the defining traits of the medium in every decade is a kind of “state of the art form” manifesto that’s not so much written as it is mapped out by the varying-to-disparate editorial sensibilities of, and even a kind of de facto creative tension that arises between, two contrasting and contemporary anthologies. As that same long-time reader (in this case, me) can tell you, though, the one-time gulf that separated said pair of anthos (whatever they may be) has been narrowing over time — first to a gap, then to a short hop, and now, perhaps, to something that looks very much like a convergence.

In the 1980s, for instance, despite the occasional cartoonist who could safely appear in both, the “high art” ethos (or, if you’re so inclined, pretensions) of Raw were pretty far removed from the punk-infused, DIY, “low-brow” populism of Weirdo, which not only wasn’t afraid to play around in the gutter, but seemed downright at home there — but as their respective spots were assumed by Drawn And Quarterly and Zero Zero in the ’90s, the goal posts of each shifted closer to the other. Closer still were Kramers Ergot and MOME in the so-called “aughts.” But ever since MOME closed up shop in 2011, Kramers has pretty much had the entire playing field to itself.

Not that other anthologies haven’t turned up here and there, mind you — many of them quite good. But these tended to be one-off affairs, often constructed around an editorially-dictated central theme or conceit, rather than, to invoke a sickeningly over-used term, curated publications whose nominal-to-the-point-of-being-oblique themes have to be teased out by readers by dint of the “running order” of strip presentation, a la Kramers — that is, until now. More specifically, until Now.

Former MOME editor Eric Reynolds has decided to “get back in the game,” so to speak, with a new thrice-yearly anthology that even comes complete with a (poorly-worded, but whatever) “mission statement” of sorts. To quote directly from Reynolds’ introduction : “I want to leverage Fantagraphics’ stature in the marketplace to put out an affordable and ongoing print anthology that showcases as broad a range of quality comic art as possible – and to put it under as many eyes as possible. I want to make an anthology that looks inviting to a casual comics reader but challenges them as they dig deeper. I want to encourage a revival of the short story in the age of long form graphic novels. I want to showcase as diverse a collection of cartoonists and comics as possible, one that provides a full spectrum of what the medium has to offer” — all noble goals, surely, even if the first and the last are, ya know, basically the same thing. Methinks the editor may need — an editor?

Pedantic bullshit aside, though, who am I to argue with Reynolds’ logic? And his opening night gala has a heck of a guest list : Rebecca Morgan provides the eye-catching (to say the least) cover, with three-panel back cover strip by Nick Thorburn; Sara Corbett, Gabrielle Bell, and Kramers‘ own Sammy Harkham contribute one-page strips (all quite strong); Tobias Schalken, Dash Shaw, Tommi Parrish, Kaela Graham, Daria Tessler, Conxita Hererro, and the team of cartoonist Malachi Ward and co-writer Matt Sheean chime in with medium-length strips; and Eleanor Davis, J.C. Menu, Noah Van Sciver, and Antoine Cosse serve up what we’ll call, for lack of a better term (that I can think of at the moment, at any rate) “feature-length” strips. A nice mix of veteran and emerging talent, indeed.

If pressed to pick one “standout work,” I’d probably have to go with Davis’ “Hurt Or Fuck,” a deceptively-simple interpretive piece that expertly uses the gaps in its own internal logic to heighten its emotional resonance and that, in true Davis fashion, doesn’t pack a punch so much as it leaves an invisible mark with a bittersweet (but mostly bitter) sting that lingers for days, but Van Sciver’s “Wall Of Shame” is a superb and eminently relatable autobio story not to be missed, Shaw’s “Scorpio” is an entirely unsubtle but nonetheless highly effective juxtaposition of a difficult childbirth with a just-as-difficult election night 2016 result (hey, a 128-page anthology can’t be expected to — fuck, in my view shouldn’t — avoid at least a little bit of Trump-bashing somewhere along the way), Graham’s “Pretend We’re Orphans” is a lavishly-illustrated “dark fairy tale” that effortlessly recalls memories of being scared in just the right way before bedtime, and Ward and Sheean’s “Widening Horizon” posits an alternate trajectory — extrapolated from a handful of genuinely historical roads not taken — of international space travel that both forces and invites, in equal measure, one to consider Utopian alternatives to any number of societal ills if only, ya know, shit had worked out differently (as in better) in the past.  Any of these strips are worth the price of admission (something we’ll get to momentarily) alone, but to have them all between the same two covers is more than enough to cement Now #1’s place as one of the very best comics of the year.

Are there some misfires to be found here, though? Of course, but even there nobody fails for lack of trying : Hererro’s “Here I Am” is a re-contextualized version of an earlier Bell strip that’s gorgeously drawn, but fails to bring forth anything new from its “source material,” nor to add much by way of a distinctive personality it can call its own; Schalken’s wordless “21 Positions/The Final Frontier” misses its chance to coalesce at the last moment even though it’s right there for the taking (although maybe that’s the whole point and I’m just stupid); Cosse’s “Statue” tries to pack a bit too much “food for thought” into what is a sprawling, languidly-paced visual narrative; Menu’s “S.O.S. Suitcases” has enough going for it on its own merits that its author is just plain wasting his time by leaning on Lloyd Dangle and Gary Panter “influence crutches”; Tessler’s “Songs In The Key Of Grief” take us on an incredible post- “television age” psychedelic journey but fails to clue us in on why we should want to go along for the ride; Parrish’s untitled strip offers a fascinating and informative look at changing (indeed, evolving) gender identity mores and their cause-and-effect relationship with sexual orientation but is, alas, just a touch too earnest and “lecture hall”-ish for its own good. Not a “bad” offering in the lot, by any means, but all examples of strips that set out to do something they don’t quite manage to achieve. “Fascinating but flawed,” I think, is the exact phrase I’m looking for.

It’s in analyzing the whole, though, that things get really interesting : it’s clear that Reynolds has already succeeded, just one issue into things, in doing precisely what he wanted to with Now — there’s a lot of great material to be found here, a lot of “almost great” material, and no real “clunkers” in the bunch. Furthermore, it’s presented nicely (but not too nicely) and at a very reasonable price ($9.99 for 128 pages? Where are you gonna do better than that?) — and for a final flourish, it even manages to incorporate its economic populism into its overall aesthetic, its editorial being short and to the point, its table of contents being printed on the back cover, and its cover stock being of more or less the “standard comic book” variety. The paper’s slick but not anything you wouldn’t find in an Image or Dark Horse comic; its dimensions are no taller — and only slightly wider — than, say, a Marvel or DC “floppy” single issue; it’s squarebound, but just a simple glued binding — no doubt, this is “art comics” packaged for the mass market, and for mass consumption.

And that fact, more than anything, is what convinces me that the “dueling anthologies” paradigm is back — only this time they’re not even “dueling” at all. Honestly, any and all of the strips in Now #1 would feel every bit as “at home” in the next volume of Kramers Ergot. The same aesthetic impulses seem to be driving both publications, and besides, ever-emerging delivery platforms have blown open comics as widely as they have music and film by this point. The old divisions, already diminishing, are gone altogether now and quality work will, one way or another, find its way to an audience.  The only question is whether it will be via a computer screen, a reasonably-priced printed periodical, or a fancy, deluxe, over-sized book complete with numerous bells and whistles. There’s a place for all of it. There’s a market for all of it. Hell, for hungry readers and starving cartoonists alike, there’s definitely a need for all of it.

In that sense, then, what Reynolds and Fantagraphics (who, let’s not forget, also publishes Kramers these days) are doing here is filling in an essential gap, and serving an under-served segment of the comics community. Reading through this book made me realize just how much I’d missed having a top-quality anthology available on a consistent basis at a price that didn’t break the bank. I wish it had happened sooner, absolutely — but I’m glad it’s happening Now.