Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Contemporary Collections

Once more into the breach — this time out, we take a look at my personal favorite contemporary collected editions of 2018, with “contemporary collected editions” specifically referring to books presenting work that was published somewhere else first, either as single issues, mini-comics, even just strips in various anthologies. The “contemporary” part of the equation means that these volumes need to present material that was published after the year 2000, as anything prior to that will fall into the “vintage collected editions” list that we’ll do in the next day or two. Final ground rule : English-language translations of Eurocomics and Manga are also eligible in this category (with the same chronological guidelines in play), since they  also, ya know, saw print somewhere else first. Let’s get right to it, then:

10. Compulsive Comics By Eric Haven (Fantagraphics) – Haven’s surreal strips appear far too infrequently, so getting two collections of them two years in a row like we have is genuine cause for celebration. Like Fletcher Hanks on bad acid with plenty of deadpan humor and gorgeous linework and color, the worlds Haven creates are what bad dreams would look and feel like — if they were fun. Plus, he accidentally kills a bunch of famous cartoonists in this one.

9. From Lone Mountain By John Porcellino (Drawn+Quarterly) – We all know that Porcellino’s King-Cat Comics is one the true treasures of this beleaguered medium we love, but what’s less well-known is what an absolute roll this series was on in the early-to-mid 2000s. This superb collection presents the very best of those years, when Porcellino was really getting a firm grip on the wistful, evocative, “tone poem” character that the series maintains to this day. Simply beautiful.

8. Red Winter By Anneli Furmark (Drawn+Quarterly) – One of the most heartfelt and stirring love stories to grace the comics world in some time, every forlorn glance and stolen moment these two doomed paramours share is a stake through the heart, lushly rendered against a backdrop of political intrigue and familial drama. Furmark’s strips are a national institution in Sweden — here’s your chance to see why.

7. Dumb By Georgia Webber (Fantagraphics) – The most harrowing and heartfelt autobio work of this year, Webber’s chronicle of her extended period without the use of her voice, originally self-published as a series on minis, is a privileged look at the challenges and daily practical demands of navigating through a hitherto-unforeseen health crisis. A very silent scream, indeed.

6. Somnabulance By Fiona Smyth (Koyama Press) – Long overdue, this massive retrospective of the work of one of Canada’s pioneering feminist cartoonists skirts our rules a bit by presenting material from both the previous century and this one (we’ll be breaking that again before this is over, fair warning), but who’s complaining? This is true auteur material, showcasing a world all its own, as foreign as it is immediately recognizable, inhabiting a space somewhere between dreams and reality. No one does it like Smyth, and no one else ever will.

5. Book Of Daze By E. A. Bethea (Domino Books) – By contrast, Bethea’s work has a way of making the actual, waking world we all know feel dreamlike, ethereal, and mysterious — even its dingiest corners. A slimmer collection than the others on this list (and the only one released as a magazine rather than a book), what this comic lacks in terms of physical heft it more than compensates for in the creation of a hermetically-sealed reality all its own.

4. The Song Of Aglaia By Anne Simon – French cartoonist Simon has long been admired “across the pond” for her detailed cross-hatching, inimitable facial expressions, and imaginative character designs, and as an “intro volume” for American readers, this feminist fairy tale is absolutely exemplary and painfully amusing. Lots of “Easter eggs” scatted throughout for Beatles fans as well in this amazingly charming, immersive volume.

3. Angloid By Alex Graham (Kilgore Books) – The mystical and mundane collide with results ranging from the heavy to the hilarious in Graham’s masterwork (to date, at any rate), culled from self-published minis and strips in her large format Cosmic BE-ING ‘zine. A sharp and wry take-down of both the art world and life on the economic margins, Graham will make you wish that you had some alien inter-dimensional helpers on your side just as her stand-in protagonist does, but you know what? You don’t need their assistance to recognize one of the most utterly unique and self-assured books of the year.

2. Providence : The Complete Slipcase Set By Alan Moore And Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – Superlatives aplenty have already been heaped upon Moore and Burrows’ Lovecraftian masterpiece, including from yours truly, so we needn’t revisit all that beyond saying that this isn’t simply one of the best horror comics ever made, but one of the best comics, period. Publisher Avatar has a reputation for producing some of their trade paperbacks and even hardcovers on the cheap, but this comprehensive collection, which also includes the prequel/sequel stories The Courtyard and Neonomicon, is very handsome indeed, and the inclusion of Dreadful Beauty : The Art Of Providence gives readers a fascinating look at Burrows’ criminally-underappreciated art in gorgeous black and white. An expensive set, to be sure, but more than worth every penny.

1. Berlin By Jason Lutes (Drawn+Quarterly) – Come on, what else was it going to be? Lutes’ sprawling, epic, highly personal tale of life in Weimar Berlin, over two decades in the making (told you we’d be skirting that “post-2000” rule again), stands as one of the high-water marks in the history of the medium, and this tremendous hardcover collection pulls out all the stops to present work this monumental in the format that it so richly deserves. A true masterpiece by any definition of the term.

And there we have it! Next up — Top 10 Vintage Collected Editions. I’m aiming to get that one up tomorrow, hope to have you along for the ride!



It’s About Time : Fiona Smyth’s “Somnambulance”

When you’re talking about a book that runs to 366 pages and covers over 30 years, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Fortunately for me— and anyone else who reviews it — Canadian cartoonist Fiona Smyth arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s more or less “fully formed,” as the old expression goes, with a clear idea of both what she wanted to say and, crucially, how she wanted to say it, and has spent the succeeding decades refining and honing her style and messaging, but never veering too terribly far from the inherently feminist concerns that have been her stock in trade from the outset. And here’s the thing — her work isn’t merely “as relevant” as ever, it’s probably even moreso.

I first encountered Smyth, if memory serves me correctly, in the pages of her Vortex (remember them?) series Nocturnal Emissions (remember that?), and was immediately equal parts shocked, enthralled, perplexed, challenged, and charmed by her densely-packed strips that seemed to offer a rumination on some kind of resolution between dream and conscious reality for the purposes of liberating sexual desire. Her stuff was then — and is now — quite unlike anything else around, and so Koyama Press’ just-released comprehensive retrospective of her work, Somnambulance, is more than a simple omnibus collection, it’s an important piece of comics history that, one hopes, will introduce its author/subject to a wider audience than she has ever enjoyed in the past.

For those new to Smyth, it may take a few dozen pages to get with the flow of her absolutely singular vision, but once they do, I predict they’ll have a hard time putting the book down. Her thick line is extremely clean and intense, and the same is true of the visions she transcribes onto paper — the “intense” part, at any rate. And yet, despite the entirely unsubtle and (I say this with all due respect) unconventional libidinal urges delineated throughout, I’m not inclined to say Smyth’s subject matter isn’t “clean,” as well. Her characters, which to her credit come in all shapes and sizes, may spew fire from their vaginas and contort themselves into impossibly bizarre positions that defy logic and common sense, but no matter how raw and explicit the “events” depicted, unlike any number of other underground, or underground-influenced, cartoonists, there’s no self-loathing or even uneasiness on offer here — in fact, most of the time, Smyth’s work is downright celebratory, a packed-to-the-gills festival of the most basic-yet-mystifying of human biological urges, a kind of visual treatise on the value of embracing and revealing the depths of one’s id without a hint of shame. You want what you want so go for it — you are who you are, so be it. Simple, sure, but also as revolutionary as it gets.

A steady stream of semi-frequent recurring characters gives this mostly-chronological collection some semblance of narrative progression, and while her female protagonists all feel like they must be (and probably are) expressions of specific aspects of herself, the same seems true of her men, as well, largely existing for purposes of facilitating various acts of becoming for the women. One way or another there’s not so much a sense that Smyth is having a conversation with herself, rather she’s either playing parts of her whole off against each other, or conjoining them in new and interesting ways, in order to more fully demonstrate and express the power of her own (sorry to use a done-to-death term, but) agency.

It’s not all a party, of course — demonic spirits attain, and enjoy the pleasures of, flesh on a number of occasions, and less-than-oblique references to a typically guilt-ridden Catholic upbringing make their presence felt throughout, but these are temporary obstacles, never entirely escaped from but lacking the power to put a damper on things for any extended period of time, compartmentalized expressions of internal angst that the cartoonist herself isn’t so much afraid of as seeking to strip of their power by dint of exposing their existence to both herself and her audience. There’s a wholeness and generosity of vision here — from Smyth’s earliest mini-comics work through to her contemporary-era paintings and large-panel illustrations — that somehow reveals all the complexity and nuance of someone not just comfortable with, but appreciative of, the fact that she is able to engage in deep and thorough self-examination in a public forum. I wouldn’t have the guts to do it myself — much less have fun with it — but Smyth is infinitely more interesting, imaginative, and confident than most, and that results in comics that are endlessly interesting and inventive even as they mostly tread the same thematic ground.

The human psyche is a stew of contradictory ingredients, and many cartoonists excel at making the creative end-product of theirs palatable in spite of their repugnance or toxicity. Somnambulance, however, proves that Fiona Smyth has always done, and continues to do, something entirely different — she gives us a privileged look into the deepest recesses of her conscious an unconscious mind, as “warts and all” an experience as it gets, and, with apologies to Lucky Charms cereal, makes it magically delicious.