Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

We’re inching closer to being done with our monstrous year-end wrap, and with this, our next-to-last list, we’ll be taking a look at my top ten “special mentions” — that is, projects that have to do with comics, or are by cartoonists, but aren’t precisely comics per se in and of themselves. The term I settled on some time back was “comics-adjacent” works, and until something better comes to mind, I’m sticking with it. And so —

10. Folrath #3 By Zak Sally (La Mano 21) – The third and final “volume” of Sally’s riso-printed prose memoir of his life on the social, economic, and cultural margins in the early 1990s ably demonstrates that he’s every bit as gifted a writer as he is a cartoonist. I hated to see this end, but loved every page of it.

9. Bubbles #4 Edited By Brian Baynes (Self-Published) – Baynes came out of nowhere this year and started cranking out the best solo old-school ‘zine in recent memory, but with number four he brought in a small handful of contributors who all turned in exemplary work, and his interview subjects included one of my favorite of the “new crop” of indie cartoonists, Josh Pettinger, and long-time favorite Archer Prewitt, so this gets the nod as the best issue to date. Long may this project continue.

8. 2016-1960 By Jeff Zenick (Self-Published) – The ever-idiosyncratic Zenick’s latest illustration ‘zine presents a fascinating visual case study of changing social trends and customs via hand-rendered interpretations of high school and college yearbook portrait photos. Compelling and engrossing and maybe even a little bit wistful at the margins, this tells a strong story without resorting to so much as a single line of dialogue.

7. But Is It — Comic Aht? #2 Edited By Austin English And August Lipp (Domino Books) English and Lipp follow up a terrific debut issue issue with an even better sophomore effort, covering everything from EC to Anna Haifisch to weird 1990s kids’ comics to David Tea. Full disclosure : I’ve got a piece in this ‘zine, but it would have earned this spot easily regardless.

6. Crows By Jenny Zervakis (Self-Published) – A gorgeous but harrowing mix of prose and illustration that limns the collapse of a twenty-year marriage and the complete re-think of one’s life that goes along with it. As always, Zervakis finds a reason to go on via her love for nature — and nobody draws it better than she does.

5. Steve Gerber : Conversations Edited By Jason Sacks, Eric Hoffman, And Dominick Grace (University Press Of Mississippi) – The latest book in the long-running “Conversations With Comic Artists” series is also one of the best, presenting a career-spanning retrospective series of interviews with one of the most gifted writers and “far-out” thinkers in the history of the medium. If we see a “Gerber revival” of sorts in the future — and we damn well should — we can all point back to this as its starting point.

4. Bill Warren : Empire Of Monsters By Bill Schelly (Fantagraphics) – What turned out, sadly, to be the final project authored by noted comics and fandom historian Schelly was also one of his best, chronicling the life and times of the visionary publisher who brought the world everything from Famous Monsters to Blazing Combat. You hear the term “impossible to put down” a lot — this book really is just that.

3. Forlorn Toreador By E.A. Bethea (Self-Published) – The latest (and likely greatest, but hey — they’re all good) ‘zine from the endlessly creative Bethea is a poetic exploration of times, places, and people gone that utilizes an intuitively- assembled mixture of comics, prose, and portrait illustration to paint a picture of the world as it both was and is. You’ll miss reading it before it’s even over.

2. Brain Bats Of Venus : The Life And Comics Of Basil Wolverton Volume Two, 1942-1952 By Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics) – The second entry in Sadowski’s exhaustive biography of one of comics’ most legendary iconoclasts is painstakingly researched, engagingly written, and loaded with archival documents and well over a dozen fully-restored Wolverton stories that have never looked better. Somebody’s looking down on this “labor of love” project and smiling.

1. Loop Of The Sun By Daria Tessler (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – An ancient Egyptian myth of creation is brought to kaleidoscopic, phantasmagoric life in Tessler’s mixed-media masterpiece, a culmination of everything this visionary artist has been building up to in recent years. The most visually ambitious work to ever come out of a riso printer — and the most gorgeous book you’ll purchase this year.

Next up, we’ll wrap up our year-end review with a look at my choices for the top ten original graphic novels of 2019, but until then please 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. I make sure you get great value for your money, have no fear on that score, so do give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Rhythm And Resonance : E.A. Bethea’s “Forlorn Toreador”

There’s a lot of talk these days about comics as poetry (or at least more than there used to be), but E.A. Bethea’s ‘zine’s have been comfortably aligning themselves  within that classification for a long time — even if they they don’t, in and of themselves, present literal poems all that often per se. And while her latest self-published opus, Forlorn Toreador, is perhaps the most confident and assured distillation of her singular ethos yet, again there’s not a poem to be found within it, yet the sum total of its contents plays out very much like an extended one.

Alternating between emotive text pieces, full-page portrait illustrations, and Bethea’s trademark scrawled-with-heartfelt-precision comic strips, the book has a transitional fluidity to it that’s more intuitive than it is strictly explicit, more exploratory than it is declarative. Much of the work is tinged with more than a hint of nostalgia — as the title itself implies — but this is no rote trip down memory lane; rather, whether she’s reminiscing on her lukewarm exposure to religion as a kid, famous pro wrestlers of the past, places that once meant something but are now gone, or beloved TV personalities that have passed away, Bethea’s ruminations on the past are employed as a means of understanding her present, a forensic exploration of where she’s been in order to better locate where she is now.

Which, I promise, is nowhere near as pretentious as I perhaps make it sound. In fact, Bethea trusts her own muse — wherever it may take her — so implicitly that what probably, by rights, should feel like a lot of unfocused bobbing and weaving instead finds expression as a cogent through-line that takes all its various and sundry ingredients as necessary components of a holistic worldview, one in which the past is never truly gone, and the lessons to be learned from it have a hell of a lot more to do with cleaving (however fruitlessly) to its temperament than they do with preserving it in a physical sense. In fact, part of the wistful beauty of these places and people and events that have come and gone is to be found within the fact that they are, indeed, no more — their transitory nature itself lending them a kind of mystique that permanence loses probably by definition.

Dense both verbally and conceptually, the vignettes on offer here are nevertheless pleasurable — even sublime — by nature, as they feel very much direct and unmediated : a transcribing of art via consciousness, sure, but also perhaps by a kind of “muscle memory” centered in the heart, each pencil or pen stroke communicating a kind of intimate knowledge of Bethea’s subjects not so much based on who and what they are or were but, more importantly, what they meant to her and mean to her still. This is no easy feat, I assure you, and I’m tempted to say that the ability to transmit this sensation to readers is something you simply either have or don’t, but maybe that’s just because it comes so naturally to this particular artist — I have no doubt that she works hard at her craft and pores over any given page for hours, but the finished “product” is imbued with such immediacy that you could be fooled into thinking she simply sits down, pours it all out of her, and moves on.

Except for the fact that, of course, “moving on” isn’t what Bethea’s work is about and never has been. Each and every person she’s encountered, each place she’s been, every movie she’s seen or song she’s heard — it’s all in her still, and all of it is worthy of examination. Not with a microscope, mind you, but via the very human process of memory itself, which is never so much about an exacting recollection of details as it is an arranging of those details in order of personal importance. We are, each of us, editors of the ongoing film that is our life, and that sort of individual interpretive analysis of the things that have made us who we are has seldom been represented more beautifully than it is in this at-first-glance-unassuming ‘zine.

This is one of those rare occasions where my stash of superlatives well and truly runs dry, and I feel like the best thing I can do is tell you to get this book and get out of your way — it’s an experience suffuse with familiarity (sometimes vague, sometimes more concrete), sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s like anything you’ve seen or read before.

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Forlorn Toreador is available for $10.00 directly from E.A. Bethea at https://eabethea.bigcartel.com/

Also, this review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by 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. Subscribing is the best way to support my ongoing work, so please take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse