Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

At last we reach the finish line with the sixth and final of our “Best of 2021” lists. This time up the category is TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS, which I hope is fairly self-explanatory : new and original works in the so-called “graphic novel” format that have not been previously serialized, at least in anything like their entirety, either physically or digitally. There were many excellent books to choose from this year, and narrowing it down to my ten favorites was a pretty tough task. Here’s what I came up with :

10. Penny By Karl Stevens (Chronicle Books) – While not a “graphic memoirist” per se, Stevens always finds inspiration for his lavishly illustrated stories pretty close to home : this time out it’s his cat’s turn to have adventures ranging from the cosmic to the banal and everything in between. Seriously, if this book doesn’t move you, then check your pulse — you may not have one.

9. Generous Bosom Part 4 By Conor Stechschulte (Breakdown Press) – The twists and turns finally all converge in this final installment of Stechschulte’s opus of mindfuckery. A perfect ending it’s not, but that doesn’t preclude it from being an eminently satisfying one. Oh, and hey — soon to be a major motion picture! But that’s another story for another time, and one that’s already more convoluted than the books it’s (partially, at any rate) based on.

8. Mycelium Wassonii By Brian Blomerth (Anthology Editions) – Comics’ modern master of psychedelia follows up his book on the early days of acid research with a book on — the early day’s of ‘shroom research? Hey, give Blomerth credit : he knows both what he likes and what he does really well. An educational, informative, and gorgeously-drawn “trip” well worth taking.

7. Lure By Lane Milburn (Fantagraphics) – An ambitious science fiction epic that never loses sight of its humanity, Milburn’s exploration of life on Earth and its fictitious “twin” planet may be set in the future but is still as timely as they come, offering as it does cogent commentary on such things as the so-called “gig economy,” the exploitation of the natural world, Amazonian hyper-capitalism, colonialism, and the billionaire space race. One of those rare comics that not only lives up to, but exceeds, all the “buzz” surrounding it.

6. Super! Magic Forest By Ansis Purins (Revival House) – A “kids’ comic” for the kid in all of us, Purins’ vividly imaginative world leaps off the page and into your heart with the kind of unforced charm that simply can’t be faked. All that wonder and mystery and significance you left behind when you grew up? It’s all right here, waiting to welcome you back.

5. Death Plays A Mean Harmonica By Steve Lafler (Cat Head Comics) – American ex-pats decamp to Oaxaca to live the good life, only to find themselves surrounded by vampires, intelligent fungi, and yes, even Death him/itself — but hey, maybe it’s still the good life after all! Blending the personal with the outrageous with the outrageously funny as only he can, Lafler has created one of the finest works of his storied career.

4. Nod Away Vol. 2 By Joshua W. Cotter (Fantagraphics) – The second “chapter” in Cotter’s science fiction masterpiece-in-progress abruptly shifts focus yet still manages to build on all that’s come before. Written and drawn with more passionate intensity per page than perhaps anything else out there, this is the embodiment of a true magnum opus — and while I can’t claim to have the first guess as to where it’s all headed, I do know that I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Neither should you.

3. Chartwell Manor By Glenn Head (Fantagraphics) – Powerful, poignant, and painful, Head’s memoir of abuse at the hands of a schoolmaster is just as much about the parental denial that allowed it to continue and the lasting psychological scars that never really heal as it is about the perpetrator, and as a result this stands as one of the most thorough-going examinations of survival in the history of the medium. When they talk about “comics that will be discussed and debated for years to come,” this is what they mean.

2. From Granada To Cordoba By Pier Dola (Fantagraphics Underground) – The full-length debut of a masterful new voice, Dola’s existential downward spiral balances humanism with nihilism (don’t even ask me how that works), visual literacy with the aesthetics and approach of a true “outsider.” In a sane and just world, this would be the year’s most influential comic. Here’s to hoping — just don’t expect to find much hope in the pages of the book itself, okay?

1. The Domesticated Afterlife By Scott Finch (Antenna) – A decade in the making, Finch’s breathtakingly unique book is a seamless marriage of the literary and the visual in service of telling a multi-faceted but absolutely singular story with an equally singular worldview. Not exactly an anarchist anti-domestication text per se, although such sentiments surely inform it, I would argue that it’s more an emotive exploration of what is lost when the conscious and unconscious are bifurcated and dreaming itself is colonized by pedestrian rationality. Featuring a complex and enthralling set of contrasting symbols and mythologies, this is no mere exercise in “world-building,” but rather an act of reality creation that stands as a testament to the transformational power of imagination.

And that, my friends, is a wrap — not only on these lists, but on Four Color Apocalypse for the year 2021. I’ll be back in early January (that’s next week, so it’s not like I’m taking some long “break” or anything) with the first reviews of the new year, but until then, if you want more, there’s always my Patreon, which I update three times per week and can be found by going over to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

“Death Plays A Mean Harmonica” — And Steve Lafler Crafts A Really Nice Comic

Oaxaca is an interesting, dare I say even magical place — a unique intersection of indigenous traditions, modern-day Mexican culture, and American expat bon vivant-ism that’s been added to the mix thanks to its large gringo transplant community. On any given night, anything can happen, and the air is pregnant with festivity, possibility, and even a dash intrigue.

Or so I’m told, at any rate — largely by my parents, who became part of that aforementioned gringo transplant community when they retired down there nearly two years ago. I’d dearly love to visit, but the pandemic has made that wish an impossibility for the time being, although hopefully not for too much longer. Until then, though, I’ve got their emails and photos — and the comics of EX-expat Steve Lafler, who returns to the place he once called home (or, in a pinch, a home away from home) for his latest self-published graphic novel, Death Plays A Mean Harmonica.

Okay, yes, it would be a lie to say this book isn’t first and foremost an involving and inviting ensemble-cast character drama, rife with narrative tributaries that coalesce in ways pleasingly unexpected if perhaps just a hair shy of downright surprising, but as much as it may be “about” newly-arrived transplants Gertie and Rex and their head-first dive into the social milieu of this little slice of Bohemia way south of the border, it’s very nearly as concerned with said slice of Bohemia way south of the border — specifically, its unspecifics : the pace of life, the atmosphere, the overall “vibe” that so many people looking for a fresh start in one way or another are first drawn to and then happy to immerse themselves in.

To that end, the book has an admirable sense of nonchalance to it — as mentioned, Lafler’s crafted a multi-faceted narrative here, but he’s not in any particular rush to force story “beats” upon readers, trusting more in both his storytelling ability and his no-doubt-sharp recollections of all things Oaxaca to weave a kind of low-key spell that’s all the more immersive for its leisurely qualities. Yes, there’s “connective tissue” aplenty that binds the fates of Gertie, Rex, a Zapotec vampire named Eduardo (who’s more into chicken than human blood), taxi-driving sentient fungus El Rey Pelon, free-spirited Caroline and, yes, Death himself — but there’s time and space (specifically, 140-plus pages of it) to sort all that out. If you’re not prepared to relax and enjoy the ride, though, you’ll be missing out on what can only be called a singularly and authentically Oaxacan reading experience, one that’s at least as concerned with the journeys of its characters, both natural and supernatural, as it is their various and sundry destinations.

This overall mellow-but-purposeful tone to the proceedings also makes its presence felt in Lafler’s smooth, fluid, entirely unforced art, an agreeable mix of semi-elegant brushwork, classical “just exaggerated enough” cartoonish-ness, subtle shading and texturing, and richly expressive facial expressions and body language. Even absent the crackerjack dialogue that’s always been Lafler’s stock in trade, these pages would be a joy to just look at and luxuriate in, each one a prime example of an experienced hand utterly confident in his own craft — and for damn good reason. It’s pitch-perfect, a veritable clinic on how to draw the eye into scenes where most of the drama comes by way of interpersonal communication rather than dull fisticuffs, chases on foot or by car, etc. When you look at Lafler’s characters talking, you instantly want to know what they’re talking about.

What it all adds up to is a comic done with equal parts passion and professionalism about a fascinating bunch of people (and other life forms) living in a fascinating place and getting up to fascinating things, together and separately. It made me want to get myself down to Oaxaca even more than I already dis going in, and I think it’s safe to say it will have that effect on most every reader — even folks who don’t have family down there.

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Death Plays A Mean Harmonica is available for $13.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/death-plays-a-mean-harmonica

Review wrist check – on a freezing cold day like today, all a person can really do is dream about warmer weather, and what better way to do that than by looking down at your wrist and seeing the favorite summertime pairing of a Squale “1521” classic blue dial model riding a BluShark marlin NATO strap from their “AlphaShark” collection? Hell, this would be perfect for Oaxaca!