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


You Need This Comic, “For Real”

If there’s one cartoonist that learned scholars of the comics medium — and even the occasional opinionated asshole such as yours truly — wishes we could see more work from, it’s James Romberger. His understanding of the unique potential and possibilities inherent to sequential storytelling is on par with the likes of Mazzuchelli or Krigstein, yet when pressed, most of my fellow critics will cop to being familiar with his stunning graphic adaptation of David Wojnarowicz’s Seven Miles A Second, and that’s about it.

Which isn’t a bad thing to be known for by any means — quite the reverse — but for whatever reason, subsequent and occasional works such as Post York and Aaron And Ahmed didn’t rock the comics community to its collective core in the same fashion. Which is a damn shame, because they’re both outstanding books that deserve to be just as widely known, studied, and discussed — but they simply haven’t garnered the requisite level of attention to generate much by way of any of that. My earnest hope, however, is that his latest Uncivilized Books-published comic, For Real, will change all that.

Not that Romberger need necessarily sweat it — his stature in the fine art world and the world of art studies, particularly comics studies, is beyond secure and established, and it’s his forays into said sphere of academia that have, at least in part, given birth to this latest project. And I can say that with a fair degree of certainty because as anyone who’s had the privilege of corresponding with James over the years can tell you, if there’s one thing this guy knows, and perhaps even more crucially one thing he gets, it’s Jack Kirby comics. The mechanics, the dynamics, the motivations, the ethos of Kirby are part and parcel of his own artistic DNA at this point, and I dare say that I consider him to be the one person out there who is an even more vocal and ardent preacher of the gospel that is The King’s Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers than I am myself. So, yeah, he knows even the more obscure corners and side-streets of the Kirby cosmology, but with For Real he shows that he has an even deeper understanding of Kirby the man than he does of Kirby the artist.

And considering few Kirby scholars know the artist better, that’s really saying something.

The comics story that makes up the bulk of this publication, entitled “The Oven,” shows Kirby at war — with the Nazis early in life and with cancer later — and is as expertly delineated as one would expect from this particular auteur, a heady mix of fluid, naturalistic linework, visionary use of people and objects in space, emotive facial and body language, and brisk sequential pacing. And yet for all that, it’s the sparsely eloquent scripting that touches the rawest of nerves, hitting on subjects ranging from PTSD to the creative process to the importance of family to finding inspiration under the most trying of circumstances, all explored in a manner that honors each of them while belaboring none. Romberger has a multi-faceted central thesis animating all of this, it’s true, but it’s one he lets his narrative make the case for, rather than forcing said narrative to fit around it — and that makes all the difference in the world. This isn’t merely “effective” cartooning, it’s smartly effective cartooning, and much of that efficacy registers as much on an emotional level as it does an intellectual one.

Necessary contextualization is gleaned from the superb backup essay, “The Real Thing,” which drives home the factual underpinning for the opinion that its subject (again, Kirby, as if you hadn’t already sussed it out) was — and remains — precisely that, but do be prepared to go back to page one of the comic after you’ve read it and re-experience the creative output that resulted from the study and erudition that went into the text piece. Taken together, the two form a seamless and cohesive whole, and make for one of the most memorable reads of the entire year.


For Real is available for $5.00 directly from the publisher at

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