Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

Here it is, the final “top ten” list in our year-end wrap, and probably the one people are most interested in. Books in this category are comprised of all-new material, never serialized in single issues or online, and constructed specifically for the so-called “graphic novel” format. And your “winners” are —

10. Blood And Drugs By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom Books) – A visceral, harrowing firsthand account of addiction and recovery on the social and economic margins by a cartoonist with a busted hand. One of the most immediate and unmediated works in recent memory, this one will leave an indelible mark on your brain.

9. The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade By Viken Berberian And Yann Kebbi (Fantagraphics) – Exploring architecture and gentrification as inherently political topics, this exquisitely-illustrated book has much to say about damn near everything,  yet never feels like a treatise or lecture. There’s nothing rotten about it at all, comrade.

8. Theth : Tomorrow Forever By Josh Bayer (Tinto Press) – Incorporating elements of memoir and metafiction to tell this remarkable coming-of-age tale, Bayer uses genre to explore deeply personal topics and to paint a portrait of a life that could well and truly “go either way.” Utterly unique stuff that will make you glad your late-teens and/or early-twenties are over with.

7. The Death Of The Master By Patrick Kyle (Koyama Press) – Meet the new boss, same as — ah, you know the drill. But you’ve never seen that axiom bought to life in such a formally inventive and wryly satirical manner. Kyle is in full command of his considerable gifts here, and you pass on it at your peril.

6. Gender Queer By Maia Kobabe (Lion Forge) – An intellectually and emotionally resonant memoir of awakening that addresses issues of gender and sexuality, or their absence, with frankness, insight, honesty, and even a little bit of humor. One of the year’s most important and engagingly-drawn books.

5. Pittsburgh By Frank Santoro (New York Review Comics) – A lavishly-illustrated account of a family and a city’s declining fortunes and the oblique reasons behind them, this is the crowning achievement of Santoro’s career and a testament to the power of emotional survival and perseverance. As formally exciting as it is deeply personal, this is a book that richly rewards re-reading and reveals new thematic depth every time you do so.

4. Grip Vol. 2 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – The second volume of Westvind’s soaring, elegiac tribute to working women everywhere serves as both perfect companion piece to, and necessary extension of, the first. Bursting with dynamic action and illustration, this is a genuinely triumphant and transcendent work.

3. The Hard Tomorrow By Eleanor Davis (Drawn+Quarterly) – A moving and very much “of the moment” exploration of what it means to be human, to be involved in a relationship, and to bring new life into the world, Davis’ boldest and most ambitious work yet cements her reputation as one of our most important contemporary cartoonists. This is who we are, where we are, and what we hope for all wrapped up in one one visually sumptuous package.

2. Bezimena By Nina Bunjevac (Fantagraphics) – A searing and disturbing portrait of obsession and mania, this psychologically violent work is as essential as it is difficult, and Bunjevac’s amazingly detailed cartooning is the very definition of darkly alluring. Tough to read, sure, but absolutely impossible to forget.

1. How I Tried To Be A Good Person By Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics) – A towering achievement in the field of comics memoir, Lust’s dense and thorough-going examination of a pivotal and formative period of her life leaves no stone unturned and stands out for its absolute emotional honesty. Brave, confident, and visually literate in the extreme, this is one of those rare books that establishes its author as a true master of the medium.

And we’re done! It’s been quite the task compiling all these lists, but I suppose that was to be expected — after all, it’s been quite a year. 2019 saw more quality comics releases than anyone could possibly keep up with, and to call that a “good problem to have” is to sell the situation far short. In point of fact, we’re living in a new Golden Age of creativity and expression, and if you dig my ongoing coverage and analysis of it, then please consider 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’d be very grateful indeed to have your support, so do give it a look at 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?

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/22/2018 – 04/28/2018

Anthologies, surreal vegetarian polemics, and smarter-than-average TV tie-ins abound, so let’s jump right in —

A haunting and frankly topical cover from the great Al Columbia kicks off  Now #3, and as we’ve quickly come to expect, editor Eric Reynolds has assembled a first-rate selection of cartoonists from around the globe in the pages within. Standout selections from this issue are Eleanor Davis’ psychologically and sexually complex “March Of The Penguins,” Dash Shaw’s soul-baring “Crowd Chatter,” Nathan Cowdry’s unsettling “Deliver Me/Sweet Baby,” Nah Van Sciver’s amusingly ironic (and that takes skill at this point, believe me) “Wolf Nerd,” Anna Haifisch’s unapologetically straightforward “A Proud Race,” Keren Ketz’s beautiful, elegiac “My Summer At The Fountain Of Fire And Wonder,” and Roberta Scomparsa’s disturbing and all-too-real “The Jellyfish,” but for my money (and at $10 for 120 pages you won’t be complaining about how you spent yours here) the absolute revelation is Anne Simon’s triptych of strips, “The Lady Equina,” “Renaldo & Armida,” and “The Washer Of Virgins,” which reveal a cartoonist in absolute command of her considerable skills creating a hermetically-sealed world that is by turns alien and familiar, hilarious and heartbreaking, mythological and timeless. Simon’s debut full-length graphic novel The Song Of Aglaia is slated for release later this summer from Now publisher Fantagraphics, and it just jumped to the top of my “must-read” list.

What’s perhaps nearly as remarkable as the quality of the “hits” in this volume, though, is the intriguing nature of the few “misses” on offer — Ben Passmore uncharacteristically doesn’t achieve quite what he sets out to with “The Vampire,” but it’s clear what he was aiming for and damn gutsy of him to go for something so utterly different, Marcelo Quintanilha is barely undone by the scope of his own ambition in “Sweet Daddy,” Jose Ja Ja Ja attempts to blend the unconventional with the mundane in “Grand Slam” and nearly pulls it off, and Jason T. Miles’ intro and outro one-pagers (the former titled “We Were Bound,” the latter being nameless) and Nick Thorburn’s back cover present tantalizing glimpses of situations that would merit further exploration, but don’t quite succeed in establishing and/or reflecting the larger tonal similarities (as with previous issues there’s no set “theme” or subject in this one, but Reynolds’ chosen running-order of stories invites readers to intuit at least subliminal connections) that flow throughout the rest of the collection. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t mind when a cartoonist swings for the fences and ends up hitting a long fly-ball out, and just a half-year (or thereabouts) into its existence, Now, with its well-chosen mix of already-established “regulars” and comparatively new faces, consistently provides readers with compelling, challenging, intelligent material that leaves preconceptions in the dust and demands rigorous examination. The anthology of the decade has finally arrived.

While we’re on the subject of anthologies — and third issues — Shelly Bond’s Black Crown Quarterly #3 continues the rather frustrating pattern of her IDW sub-label’s centerpiece title not knowing if it wants to tell actual stories, or just get you to buy the other books in the line. I’m enjoying Rob Davis’ “Tales From The Black Crown Pub,” this installment being no exception, but the other regular feature, Will Potter, Carl Puttnam, and Philip Bond’s “Rich And Strange : The Return Of The Cud Band” seems to be running out of gas (just as well this chapter’s only a page long, then, I guess), and the strips set in the Cannonball Comics shop are decidedly feast-or-famine, with Leah Moore and Dilraj Mann’s “Comme Des Gorgons” leaning much more toward the “famine” side of the equation.

It’s definitely not all bad, though, don’t get me wrong — Mann provides a crackerjack wrap-around cover, Peter Milligan and Kristian Rossi’s “Tales From The Raygun : Butterscotch And Soda” is a concise little Vertigo-esque tale of “high weirdness” done with more-than-requisite aplomb, Emmeline Pidgen’s “How To Spot A Galaxy” more than lives up to the high standard of previous installments of “Hey, Amateur!,” and the Tini Howard-scripted “Ghost-Walk With Me : Canon Street By Torchlight,” also illustrated by Monsieur Bond, is more fun than a blatantly promotional yarn probably has any right to be, while David Barnett and Martin Simmonds’ Punks Not Dead sidebar story, “Pretty In Punk,” provides an intriguing glimpse into the early years of Feargal Ferguson’s mother that goes some way toward explaining why she is the way she is today and fleshes out the world of their series considerably in just a few pages.

Tell you what, though, the less said about the text pieces in this ish the better — Barnett’s interview with Howard about her and Nick Robles’ forthcoming Euthanauts series is fine, but Cathi Unsworth’s “Swell Maps” (this time focused on Newcastle and featuring illustrations, once again, by the talented Cara McGee) suffers from the Black Crown curse of being too self-consciously “cool” for its own good, which is likewise my main “beef” with regular features “Four Corners” (Simmonds being forced to prove his “hipness” in this one) and “Beat Surrender” (which strong-arms Ms. Moore into doing the same). Things are simply becoming to repetitious and insular in this comic for it to maintain my interest much longer, and those are two “strikes” a series can’t afford when it’s saddled with an editorial vision as narrow and dated as Bond’s — and speaking of “can’t afford,” while this comic is printed on very nice paper and features high-quality cardstock covers, $7.99 for 48 pages is a more than a bit much, especially when you factor in that no fewer than six of those pages are eaten up with “house” ads for the other Black Crown books.

I dunno — I really wanted to like this comic, and there are things about it that I am perfectly well-satisfied by, at the very least, but I simply can’t keep justifying the expenditure at this point. I’m sticking with Black Crown’s other titles happily, but this is me saying “good-bye” to their “flagship” book.

Patrick McGoohan’s legendary ITV series The Prisoner has been “optioned” for four-color exploitation before — Jack Kirby started in on an adaptation while it was still running (or maybe shortly thereafter) that was abandoned before it saw publication, and DC released an “authorized” sequel by Dean Motter in the late 1980s — but Titan Comics seems bound and determined to give us the “definitive” funnybook iteration of Number Six with The Prisoner : The Uncertainty Machine, the first issue of which hit shops this past Wednesday. I grabbed the variant cover featuring one of Kirby’s stunning splash pages inked by Mike Royer (here presented in color for the first time — and in Mike Allred color, at that), but it was the interior of the book that actually impressed me most : Peter Milligan and Colin Lorimer would both be at the top of anyone’s list to helm this project, and they each deliver in a big way. Milligan’s script is tight, fast-paced, and sets the stage well for what promises to be a very intriguing updating of the concept, while Lorimer and colorist extraordinaire Joana Lafuente dial back the darkness a bit from their amazingly creepy Shadowline/Image horror title The Hunt and capture the tone and feel of the TV show pitch-perfectly. I swear, the double-page spread of The Village at the tail end of this comic is worth the $3.99 asking price all by itself. I am definitely in for the duration here.

And last but certainly not least, Richard Starkings, Tyler Shainline, and Shaky Kane are continuing to absolutely slay me with their Image series The Beef, and the just-released third issue continues their pattern of not so much subverting, but completely ignoring more or less every aspect of graphic storytelling convention altogether and writing their own rule book, which simply reads, in bold, block caps : “THERE ARE NO RULES.” We’re talking about a comic about a guy who turns into a slab of raw meat, after all. Dairy products and veal come in for special — and richly-deserved — shaming this time out, but the narrative also propels itself toward something that should serve as an approximation of a “conclusion,” as the asshole meat-packing plant owner’s even-bigger-asshole son puts The Beef’s lady-love in danger and the bought-and-paid-for local cop tries to fuck everything up for our ostensible “hero.” A savage take-down of the prejudice, gluttony, idiocy, and flat-out ugliness of Trump’s America that can’t decide if it wants to make you laugh or make you cringe and so, wisely, opts to do both, this comic is like nothing else that has come before it — nor anything that will follow in its wake. I’m in straight-up awe of this shit.

Okay, I’ve bent your ear for long enough, I think. Next week’s round-up is a bit up in the air as I’m headed out of town for the weekend, but if I can get some stuff read before Friday, who knows? Maybe I’ll surprise everyone — myself included — by slapping a column up before I head west for a few days. If not, then I’ll hope to see you good readers back here in two weeks’ time!

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Collected Editions (Contemporary)

Let’s keep plugging away here, shall we? This time around on out year-end wrap we’re looking at the top 10 collected editions of 2017, with a slight change to my previously-announced methodology : rather than placing everything “Modern Age” (roughly the 1980s) and beyond in this category, I’ve narrowed it to collections of comics published post-2000, so that everything being referred to as “contemporary” at least comes from, ya know, this century. Apart from that, however, the category remains a fairly broad one : TPB or hardcover collections of single issues, webcomics collections, diary comics collections, and anthologies all fall into what I consider to be “collected editions” — in other words, a lot of this stuff is more or less brand new, and many critics who don’t share my OCD affliction might even call some of these “graphic novels.” I’m not gonna do it that way, though, because my list of the top 10 graphic novels is going to be just that : original graphic novels constructed from the outset to be published as a single volume.

That’s it for the particulars, then, apart from a reminder that there may be a couple of tail-end-2016 releases that make their way onto these lists because they hit shops too late to be properly reviewed by yours truly last year, and that each book will be summarized quickly — these are not proper “reviews” or anything of the sort. Okay, let’s do this!

10. Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero by Michael DeForge (Drawn+Quarterly) – DeForge revealed a more whimsical and even, dare I say it, “fun” side in these single-page webcomics, and they read very cohesively as a collection. Absurdist humor, an idiosyncratic protagonist, and a decidedly revisionist take on “funny animals” combine to form a typically singular (there’s a contradiction for you) DeForge reading experience.

9. Sunburning by Keiler Roberts (Koyama Press) – Roberts’ autobio webcomics are a stark look at life’s challenges and its subtle beauty and they balance the joys and drudgeries of parenting with a quiet and unassuming honesty that’s entirely un-sentimental, but not in any way clinical. In addition, her simple-but-detailed illustration draws the eye in to notice every little detail, and there are a lot of details to notice. It’s always a pleasure to see her work collected in print, and this is her strongest book yet.

8. A Process Of Drastically Reducing One’s Expectations by Gabby Schulz (Phase Eight Publishing) – If you know Schulz, you know that this collection of his diary comics won’t be an “easy” read — he doesn’t spell out the particulars of his life with any great specificity, but you can see his mental, physical, and financial deterioration playing out before your eyes in a manner as relentless as it is nonchalant. So, yeah, this is no “easy” read — but it’s a compelling and engrossing one, no doubt about it.

7. Band For Life by Anya Davidson (Fantagraphics) – These chronicles of a multi-species punk band in a sci-fi future Chicago sure seem an awful lot like those of people I knew in my 20s who were in bands, so I guess that means the themes here are timeless, indeed. And Davison herself reflects the never-say-die ethos of her protagonists : after fleeing Vice’s digital sweatshop, she continued posting these strips on her Tumblr page, and finally saw them through to completion in this magnificent hardback collection.

6. Boundless by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn+Quarterly) – Breathtaking illustration, ethereal themes, and naturalistic visual storytelling combine to make this collection of Tamaki’s strips a supremely memorable read, one that analyzes her female progatonists’ complex relationships with themselves, their bodies, their hopes and fears, and their self-image with disarming candor and incredible grace. Stirring, soul-searing stuff.

5. You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis (Koyama Press) – This travelogue composed of diary strips and single illustrations documenting Davis’ bicycle trip from her parents’ home in Arizona to her adoptive hometown of Athens, Ga. doesn’t chain itself to anything like a traditional narrative framework, instead providing an interpretive, experiential look at a journey every bit as philosophical, even spiritual, as it is physical. Another resoundingly resonant work from someone making a very strong case to be considered the cartoonist of her generation.

4. Mirror Mirror II , edited by Julia Gfrorer and Sean T. Collins (2dcloud) – The second volume of 2dcloud’s annual(-ish) anthology has a loose “horror” theme at its core, buy beyond that editors Gfrorer and Collins really do give their contributors free reign to explore the subject in wide-open, entirely unique ways. And what a group of contributors they’ve got! A unique mix of folks we see a lot of working in other genres (Simon Hanselmann, Josh Simmons), folks whose work typically does tend toward the horrific (Gfrorer, Noel Freibert, Clive Barker — yes, really!), and folks we just plain don’t get to see anywhere near enough of these days (Al Columbia, Renee French, Dame Darcy, Carol Swain, Nicole Claveloux), all presented in the kind of uncompromisingly high-quality package we’ve come to expect from this premier “boutique” art-comics publisher. This is a book overflowing with both dark beauty and artistic integrity.

3. Providence Acts Two And Three by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – I’ve raved enough about this series over the last couple of years — but goddamn, it’s so good that I almost feel as if I’ve undersold it. Suffice to say, Moore and Burrows have created what  is undoubtedly the smartest, most richly-detailed, most multi-layered horror comic in history. Act Two collects issues 5-8, Act Three finishes the story off with issues 9-12.

2. True Swamp Book 2: Anywhere But In — by Jon Lewis (Uncivilized Books) – Finally collecting Lewis’ two “bumper-sized” issues from the early “aughts,” his second go-round with the foul-mouthed (but hyper-intelligent) Lenny the Frog and his bog-dwelling friends is, if anything, even more funny, smart, and endearing than the first, and far more visually accomplished and experimental. Matching the wit and charm of Walt Kelly’s Pogo with a distinct underground sensibility, there has simply never been another comic like True Swamp — and, chances are, there never will be again. I believe “sublime” is the word we’re looking for.

1. Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn by Gerald Jablonski (Fantagraphics Underground) – At last presented in the oversized format that these dense, information-packed (both visually and verbally) strips pretty much demand, this near-as-we’re-ever-likely-to-get-to-definitive collection of Jablonski’s work showcases his singular genius in a manner his small-but-dedicated legion of fans could only have dreamed of until it finally happened. Utterly unlike any other comics ever even conceived of — much less done — by anyone else, this is a hermetically-sealed universe unto itself where the rules of what “should” or “shouldn’t” work not only don’t apply, but simply don’t matter. Jablonski reigns supreme in his kingdom of one.

Okay, looks like that’ll do it! Again, this list seemed like a daunting thing to put together until I started doing it, and then it all came together almost on its own, as if it were just being channeled through me. Freaky, huh?

Next up : my picks for the top 10 collections of vintage (as in, pre-2000) comics released in 2017. Hope to see you back here in a couple of days for that one!

“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.

 

 

Wrapping My Head Around Eleanor Davis’ “Libby’s Dad”

If there’s one comic this year that’s taken me the greatest number of readings to fully process, it’s Libby’s Dad by the incomparable Eleanor Davis, which technically came off the presses in late 2016 as part of the monthly co-publishing venture between Box Brown’s Retrofit Comics and Big Planet Comics, but didn’t reach subscribers’ eager hands until January, so hey — that makes it a 2017 release in my book, regardless of what the copyright indicia says. Beyond that admittedly arbitrary judgment, though, firm decisions are a tricky thing to come by in regards to this book.

Don’t get me wrong : I knew the minute I finished reading it that first time that I liked it a lot, and in some respects it’s sort of a shame that it’s now viewed as something of a “stop-gap” release between Davis’ much-lauded Fantagraphics collection, How To Be Happy, and her extraordinary travel memoir, You & A Bike & A Road published just a couple months ago by Koyama Press, because there’s a tremendous amount of thematic and conceptual density on offer here for a short, 40-page “graphic novella”  that, in fairness, can be read in all of about ten minutes, but it’s one of those comics where there are not only “no easy answers,” there aren’t even any right or wrong answers — probably because there aren’t any answers on offer at all.

Deceptive simplicity, and the false sense of complacency it tends to necessarily engender, is the order of the day here — five pre-teen girls are having a pool/slumber party at the home of, well, Libby’s Dad, a newly-divorced guy who’s obviously doing the whole mid-life-crisis thing up big. He’s got the fancy new house with a pool going for him, and chances are pretty good that there’s a sports car in the garage, too. He’s clearly trying to impress his daughter’s friends by ordering them KFC (ubiquitous product placement, and the concomitant de facto critique of consumerism it implies, being something of a mainstay in Davis’ work) and cake (even though it’s no one’s birthday), but he may not be the “cool older dude” he seems : the girls have one other member of their group who’s notably absent because she’s been spreading a rumor around school — one that’s no doubt also made its way around the bleak cul-de-sacs of whatever interchangeable soul-dead suburb they all inhabit — that this apparently -nice guy who buys fried chicken and dessert for his daughter’s friends pulled a gun on his ex-wife and threatened to kill her. There may even be some circumstantial “evidence” to support this whispered-about scandal given that one of the girls saw Libby’s mom at the supermarket the other day quietly sobbing and standing frozen in place in front of the Fruit By The Foot boxes (again with the product placement).

The child’s-eye-view of adult situations may be overdone across the media landscape by now, but when handled skillfully — as it no doubt is here — it can still be equal parts relatable and revelatory : after all, we all remember what it was like to be a kid, but the way they interpret things and arrive at what passes for “understanding” often seems heartbreakingly naive to the adult mind. When you throw in guns and implications of domestic unrest, maybe even violence? Well, there really are some things that children, in an ideal world, shouldn’t have to think about — but think (and talk) about it they all most certainly do in these pages, especially when one of them spills nail polish on the carpet, and they immediately fear that the worst is about to happen.

Davis’ flowing, un-paneled page layouts and strong, highly-resonant colors (the entire book looks like it was drawn with colored pencils although I’m assuming it’s a digital approximation thereof) communicate both “light” and “dark” scenes with equal visual efficacy, and about 90% of the “information” imparted in Libby’s Dad has precisely fuck-all to do with what’s in the word balloons and box-free captions. In true child-like fashion, this is a story that is perhaps best felt and absorbed rather than strictly understood. After all, the idea that Libby’s nameless father is going to come in and shoot everyone dead over some stained carpeting is nuts, but in the highly insular context that Davis’ illustration and achingly authentic dialogue establishes, the dread that the girls feel, at the very least, makes perfect sense.

It’s probably not much of a “spoiler” if I go ahead and reveal that the old man doesn’t kill anybody — in fact, he’s pretty mellow about the whole thing and cleans up the mess in just a few seconds without so much as raising his voice or seeming even the slightest bit annoyed. As far as the girls are concerned, he’s obviously a pretty great dad. They were just jumping to silly conclusions, right?

Well, maybe — kids will do that, after all. But maybe not. Davis’ last page here (which I absolutely won’t “spoil”) is a quiet but firm gut-punch, and underlines the casual insensitivity, even cruelty, that children are capable of — one that’s frankly even unintentional given their limited, and by and large self-centered, view of the world. I’ll say no more, but as far as final images go it’s stark, unsettling, and absolutely demolishes any notions one may harbor about this being a story filtered through nostalgia’s rose-tinted lenses. This is some real shit. As real as it gets.

And my “buy” recommendation for Libby’d Dad is as strong at it gets. Yes, I said at the outset that it only takes about ten minutes to read from cover to cover, but you’re going to get your eight bucks’ worth (and then some) out of this book by poring over it for hours later. To bastardize a Dan Clowes title, Eleanor Davis is definitely packing an iron fist inside a velvet glove with this one.