Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

It’s that time of the year — specifically, the end of it. Or near enough, at any rate, for my purposes — those “purposes” being to survey the comics landscape and pick my favorites from 2019’s slate of offerings. As per the norm, I’ll be dividing things up into a veritable boat-load of different categories — top ten single issues (stand-alone comics, or ongoing projects that saw only one installment published in the last calendar year), top ten ongoing series (any comic series or “limited” series that saw two or more issues come out in 2019), top ten vintage collections (books presenting material originally published prior to the year 2000), top ten contemporary collections (books presenting material originally published after the year 2000), top ten special mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books about comics, art books, prose and/or visual works by cartoonists that aren’t exactly “comics” per se, etc.), and top ten original graphic novels (long-form original works never serialized in single issues) — and again, as per usual, we’ll kick things off with the top ten single issues list, with the others following in the coming days. Now, let’s stop dawdling and get down to business, shall we?

10. Kids With Guns #1 By Alex Nall (Self-Published) – The opening salvo of Nall’s first-ever ongoing serial instantly captured my attention with its strong characterization, sublime grasp on inter-generational relations, and oblique-but-effective social commentary, all rendered in his signature updated take on traditional “Sunday Funnies” cartooning. This project could go in any number of fascinating directions, and may or may not be about what its title implies. I’m looking forward to finding out.

9. Expelling My Truth By Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books) – Nobody employs exaggeration and absurdity to tell the “truth” about both modern life and themselves quite like Van Deusen, and in his latest, his trademark satirical wit has never been sharper while his line art has never been smoother. Always a study in contrasts, this guy, but he’s found an inimitable way to make his work’s deliberate and inherent contradictions become its raison d’etre.

8. Rodeo #1 By Evan Salazar (Self-Published) – Debuts don’t come much stronger than this one, as Salazar immediately establishes himself as a cartoonist with a unique perspective and a natural gift for storytelling, his tale of a temporary family break-up as seen through a particularly precocious child’s eyes revealing much more about what’s happening than a straight re-telling of the “facts” of the situation ever could. Emotionally and intellectually arresting in equal measure, and drawn in a confident, non-flashy style, this is one of the best single-creator anthology titles to come down the pipeline in many a year.

7. Stunt By Michael DeForge (Koyama Press) – I struggled with which category to put this one in, but eventually settled on single issues simply because it’s formatted like a Jack T. Chick tract even if it’s priced like a book — it’s also, in true DeForge fashion, imbued with a hell of a lot more philosophical depth than its page count would lead you to believe. A rumination on identity and its voluntary, even necessary, abandonment filtered through his usual lens of homoeroticism and gooey body horror, this short-form offering ranks right up there with the cartoonist’s most confidently-realized works.

6. Nabokova By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – It was such a strong and prolific year for Oshima that choosing a favorite among her works was tough, but in point of fact this is the one where she really “puts it all together” and delivers a treatise on alienation, self-absorption and the fine line between the two that’s every bit as dense as the Russian literature its title invokes — but it won’t, fortunately, take you all winter to to read it. Spellbinding stuff that will leave your head spinning with questions.

5. Castle Of The Beast By Ariel Cooper (Self-Published) – Fear of intimacy has never been delineated as beautifully or as sympathetically as it is in Cooper’s lush, breathtaking visual tone-poem that masterfully blends the concrete and the abstract into a comics experience quite unlike any other. Within a couple of years, this will be the cartoonist everyone is talking about

4. Tulpa By Grace Kroll (Self-Published) – It’s astonishing to see anyone bare their soul and their struggles as frankly as Kroll does in this, her first ever comic, but do so in a manner that brings forth genuine understanding rather than simply playing for sympathy? There are cartoonists that spend their whole careers struggling with what she achieves on her very first go-’round, and her singular art style is as smart as it is innovative.

3. For Real By James Romberger (Uncivilized Books) – The only thing more heroic than Jack Kirby’s characters was the man himself, and in this heartfelt tribute, master artist Romberger relates two harrowing life-and-death challenges The King faced in a manner than honors his style yet is in no way beholden to it. Another unforgettable comics experience by a cartoonist who never produces anything less.

2. Malarkey #4 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Long the champion of neurotic self-deprecation, by tracing the roots of both to her Catholic upbringing, Garcia ups the stakes — and the results — considerably and establishes herself as precisely what previous issues of this comic hinted she might become : the best autobio cartoonist in the business. And maybe even the heir apparent to the great Justin Green? In any case, her moment has well and truly arrived. Now, will somebody get busy collecting all her stuff into a book, please?

1. Tad Martin #7 By Casanova Frankenstein (Domino Books)  – I could say that seeing Frankenstein and his nominally stand-in protagonist matched up with the production values they so richly deserve is a “dream come true,” but this gorgeous, full-color, oversized comic is actually a nightmare come to life — and harrowing, soul-searing life at that. Always an exercise in re-invention, this issue of Tad combines elements of all the previous entries in this sporadic series into a comprehensive vision of nihilism as the only thing worth living for. Other cartoonists will have to fight for a place edging toward the middle — the margins of the medium are already spoken for.

And so we’re off to the races with “Top Ten” week. I’ll be tackling the best ongoing series next, but in the meantime do 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. Please do yourself — and, who are we kidding, me — a favor by checking it out at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Laugh ‘Til It Hurts : Tom Van Deusen’s “Expelling My Truth”

It’s no secret that I’ve always considered Tom Van Deusen to be one of the funniest cartoonists working today — but that’s selling him a bit short, I suppose, considering that he’s also one of the most interesting.

Hiding under the modern iteration of fairly classic comic-strip style illustration that he employs is something that’s almost post-postmodern, an exploration of identity and the perception thereof that see-saws back and forth between making Van Deusen look as outrageously asinine as possible in one book (Scorched Earth), gluttonous as hell in another (EatEatEat), and good-natured-bordering-on-bemused in the next (I Wish I Was Joking). All of which leads this critic to ask the questions : Will the real Tom Van Deusen please step up? And does it even matter if he does?

His latest collection from Kilgore Books, Expelling My Truth, seems as though it may come close to answering the first query, but it goes a lot further toward answering the second — and the answer it gives is “no.”

Which isn’t meant as a criticism in the least, mind you — never knowing which Van Deusen you’re going to get  is a big part of the (here’s a term I’m loathe to invoke, but damn if it doesn’t apply) charm of these purportedly “autobiographical” strips, whether we’re talking about a guy with no sense of personal boundaries whatsoever, as in the story where he asks to hold a complete stranger’s baby on the bus before getting off, walking a couple of blocks, and spying on Eddie Vedder’s house (wherein the “rock god” is getting high with a space alien), or one who isn’t above taking easy pot-shots at the pretentiousness of the art world, or one who’s as fundamentally disappointed by his lot as a workaday office drone as anyone in their right mind would be, even (maybe especially) when he’s summoned to the home of his Jeff Bezos-esque boss in order to, unbeknownst to him, talk his son out of a career as a comic book artist. They all entertain, sure — but they’re all cringe-worthy in their own way, as well. So no, it doesn’t matter which Van Deusen we’re getting, at the end of the day they’re all conscripted into service as representations in microcosm of the cartoonist’s least-enviable personality traits.

This is a trickier thing to pull off than it sounds on paper — self-deprecation is easy enough, but to form a one-man circular firing squad in a way that eschews both irony for its’ own sake and the subtle “soft sell” of “I’m making myself look like a bad guy in order to garner sympathetic reactions of the ‘no, you’re not, I promise’ variety” takes some pretty considerable skill indeed.

Not that anyone really doubts Van Deusen’s skills at this point — his classical brush line, Jason Lutes-like usage of blacks, and clean, easy-going figure drawing belie a keen understanding of the medium, and even a fairly healthy measure of respect for its history. Re-inventing the wheel is nowhere on the radar screen, but it certainly doesn’t need to be — knowing what you’re good at and proceeding according to your self-diagnosed strengths is plenty effective, thanks, and goes some way toward lending work of this nature with a disarming quality, imbuing readers with a sense of the known and familiar before going in and shaking things up, perception-wise, on a fundamental level.

Which certainly doesn’t preclude this comic from, again, being a very fun one. But it’s “fun” with a sense of purpose, with a point of view (in fact, several of them), with a cutting edge that makes you feel decidedly uncomfortable as you chuckle out loud. I don’t know if we’re any closer to discerning the “truth” about Tom Van Deusen at the end of this book than we were at the beginning, but I’m not choosy : any of these versions will do in a pinch, and even though they’re all off-putting, they sure won’t put you off the comic itself — anything but. Expelling My Truth is thoroughly enjoyable bullshit that says quite a bit about its author even as it does its level best to conceal who he “really” is.

“Unbelievably realistic” only sounds like an oxymoron. Here’s all the evidence of that you’ll ever need.

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