Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

At last we reach the finish line with the sixth and final of our “Best of 2021” lists. This time up the category is TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS, which I hope is fairly self-explanatory : new and original works in the so-called “graphic novel” format that have not been previously serialized, at least in anything like their entirety, either physically or digitally. There were many excellent books to choose from this year, and narrowing it down to my ten favorites was a pretty tough task. Here’s what I came up with :

10. Penny By Karl Stevens (Chronicle Books) – While not a “graphic memoirist” per se, Stevens always finds inspiration for his lavishly illustrated stories pretty close to home : this time out it’s his cat’s turn to have adventures ranging from the cosmic to the banal and everything in between. Seriously, if this book doesn’t move you, then check your pulse — you may not have one.

9. Generous Bosom Part 4 By Conor Stechschulte (Breakdown Press) – The twists and turns finally all converge in this final installment of Stechschulte’s opus of mindfuckery. A perfect ending it’s not, but that doesn’t preclude it from being an eminently satisfying one. Oh, and hey — soon to be a major motion picture! But that’s another story for another time, and one that’s already more convoluted than the books it’s (partially, at any rate) based on.

8. Mycelium Wassonii By Brian Blomerth (Anthology Editions) – Comics’ modern master of psychedelia follows up his book on the early days of acid research with a book on — the early day’s of ‘shroom research? Hey, give Blomerth credit : he knows both what he likes and what he does really well. An educational, informative, and gorgeously-drawn “trip” well worth taking.

7. Lure By Lane Milburn (Fantagraphics) – An ambitious science fiction epic that never loses sight of its humanity, Milburn’s exploration of life on Earth and its fictitious “twin” planet may be set in the future but is still as timely as they come, offering as it does cogent commentary on such things as the so-called “gig economy,” the exploitation of the natural world, Amazonian hyper-capitalism, colonialism, and the billionaire space race. One of those rare comics that not only lives up to, but exceeds, all the “buzz” surrounding it.

6. Super! Magic Forest By Ansis Purins (Revival House) – A “kids’ comic” for the kid in all of us, Purins’ vividly imaginative world leaps off the page and into your heart with the kind of unforced charm that simply can’t be faked. All that wonder and mystery and significance you left behind when you grew up? It’s all right here, waiting to welcome you back.

5. Death Plays A Mean Harmonica By Steve Lafler (Cat Head Comics) – American ex-pats decamp to Oaxaca to live the good life, only to find themselves surrounded by vampires, intelligent fungi, and yes, even Death him/itself — but hey, maybe it’s still the good life after all! Blending the personal with the outrageous with the outrageously funny as only he can, Lafler has created one of the finest works of his storied career.

4. Nod Away Vol. 2 By Joshua W. Cotter (Fantagraphics) – The second “chapter” in Cotter’s science fiction masterpiece-in-progress abruptly shifts focus yet still manages to build on all that’s come before. Written and drawn with more passionate intensity per page than perhaps anything else out there, this is the embodiment of a true magnum opus — and while I can’t claim to have the first guess as to where it’s all headed, I do know that I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Neither should you.

3. Chartwell Manor By Glenn Head (Fantagraphics) – Powerful, poignant, and painful, Head’s memoir of abuse at the hands of a schoolmaster is just as much about the parental denial that allowed it to continue and the lasting psychological scars that never really heal as it is about the perpetrator, and as a result this stands as one of the most thorough-going examinations of survival in the history of the medium. When they talk about “comics that will be discussed and debated for years to come,” this is what they mean.

2. From Granada To Cordoba By Pier Dola (Fantagraphics Underground) – The full-length debut of a masterful new voice, Dola’s existential downward spiral balances humanism with nihilism (don’t even ask me how that works), visual literacy with the aesthetics and approach of a true “outsider.” In a sane and just world, this would be the year’s most influential comic. Here’s to hoping — just don’t expect to find much hope in the pages of the book itself, okay?

1. The Domesticated Afterlife By Scott Finch (Antenna) – A decade in the making, Finch’s breathtakingly unique book is a seamless marriage of the literary and the visual in service of telling a multi-faceted but absolutely singular story with an equally singular worldview. Not exactly an anarchist anti-domestication text per se, although such sentiments surely inform it, I would argue that it’s more an emotive exploration of what is lost when the conscious and unconscious are bifurcated and dreaming itself is colonized by pedestrian rationality. Featuring a complex and enthralling set of contrasting symbols and mythologies, this is no mere exercise in “world-building,” but rather an act of reality creation that stands as a testament to the transformational power of imagination.

And that, my friends, is a wrap — not only on these lists, but on Four Color Apocalypse for the year 2021. I’ll be back in early January (that’s next week, so it’s not like I’m taking some long “break” or anything) with the first reviews of the new year, but until then, if you want more, there’s always my Patreon, which I update three times per week and can be found by going over to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Death Becomes Us All : Pier Dola’s “From Granada To Cordoba”

Sometimes, as a critic, you do your best to skirt around the edges, to beat around the bush, to work your way from the outskirts in as you discuss/analyze a particular piece of work. It’s not a bad sleight-of-hand approach to take given that it generally achieves the desired effect of making you look thoughtful at the very least, maybe even smart if you’re lucky, but it only goes so far : some stuff, you see, simply demands that you cut through the bullshit and get right to the heart of the matter.

Pier Dola’s debut graphic novel From Granada To Cordoba (Fantagraphics Underground, 2021) is just such a work, it’s true, but it’s also something more than “merely” that : it’s a book so visceral, so unforgiving, so unrelenting that even descriptions or synopses of it aren’t for the faint of heart. It’s an absolute fucking gut-punch of a comic, in other words, and even though it’s also hysterically funny, the humor in no way alleviates the psychological pressure that literally bears down on you from first page to last.

All of which makes it sound like a far rougher slog than it really is, I suppose, but it’s probably best to weed out the easily-offended — or even just the easily-shocked — well in advance with a book like this one, even though there’s a solid argument to be made for the idea that the aesthetically unadventurous benefit most from exposure to work of this nature. And what “nature” would that be, you ask? Well, the story focuses on a poor shmuck (who, for the record, isn’t ever even given the dignity of a name) who suffers a rectal prolapse, gets diagnosed with terminal cancer, and can’t catch a break from anybody — Nazi cops, hookers, priests, you name it — as he contemplates the utter pointlessness of his life and the rapid approach of its end. Can’t a guy just tackle multiple insurmountable personal crises in peace?

The publisher’s back cover blurb promises “near-psychotic episodes, including what may be the most horrifyingly surreal Freudian nightmare ever penned by a cartoonist,” and damn if that’s not a case of absolute truth in advertising, but Dola’s incisive wit, inventive page layouts, admirable skills as an artist (in particular as a caricaturist — be on the lookout for a doctor who’s a dead ringer for Eddie Murphy among other celebrity-doppleganger “cameos”), and blithe, almost nonchalant approach to grappling with the existential abyss make taking this journey, well, if not exactly pleasurable, at least perversely enjoyable. Just be aware that the best place to store your gag reflex while reading this is probably in a strong box with an impenetrable lock, because if it even sneaks its way back into you, then you’re screwed.

This isn’t just confrontational material, then, it’s downright combustible — but that doesn’t preclude it from being both scathingly honest and, in its own way, absolutely accurate. As to what it’s it’s right about, well, that depends on your point of view, but if you take “life’s a bitch and then you die” not as an end-all/be-all cliche but as a starting point to understanding the full scope of reality’s unbending arc, then you’re ready for where Dola is out to take you. According to his bio he’s led the sort of life that would lend itself rather well to explorations of the sort he’s engaging in here, too — born in Poland, his father was purportedly a globe-trotting oil tanker worker who’d bring his son comics from South America, comics which indelibly stained/informed his outlook as he grew to adulthood and made his way through the seedy underbelly of Italy, living as a squatter until he got married and had a kid. Currently, he’s 56 years old, is employed as a dishwasher, and this is his first-ever published work — but how much of this is true, how much is pure bullshit, and how much falls somewhere in between I really couldn’t say. I almost find myself hoping it’s an entirely fraudulent piece of self-created legend, but what I want doesn’t really matter. Nor, for that matter, does the veracity of Dola’s backstory itself. What matters is that it makes for a fitting postscript to a book that sure seems like it could be the product of the imagination of someone whose existence has been a decidedly tumultuous one.

I say that because, really, tumult and turmoil is the order of business here, and the sheer amount of nonsense Dola’s protagonist has to contend with flies directly in the face of his “all of this was a bore, all of it was for nothing, so I might as well get my rocks off on my way out” attitude — or does it? Consider, perhaps, that Dola could actually be advancing an argument that life is an obstacle course that dares you to keep your sanity intact — a phantasmagorical whirlwind of misadventure, psychodrama, unknowable terror, and stifled, stilted attempts at achieving something forever out of reach. That it’s not so much a pointless slog, but a prolonged cosmic conspiracy to prevent you, personally, from realizing any sort of genuine satisfaction. If so, then that’s something well beyond garden-variety misanthropy, and probably more akin to the farthest fringes of nihilistic philosophy. I mean, it’s one thing to posit that life is meaningless and other people suck, quite another to posit that both life itself and the other people leading it are out to cut your nuts off at every turn.

Now, taking things a step further, if we accept — even just momentarily, or for the sake of argument — that this worldview is accurate, then the next logical (and decidedly uncomfortable) question is : what is death? Dola’s answer would appear to be that it is not just the end of life, not just “the peace of the grave,” but that it is actually life’s one and only act of mercy. I mean, I don’t want to give away too much about the final few pages here, but they are both absolutely beautiful and a succinct, non-lyrical appraisal of nature’s endless cycle of creation and destruction. It’s an entirely fitting capstone to a journey equal parts harrowing and hilarious in that it’s oddly melancholic while also being entirely unromantic in its realism, but shit — we’re so far beyond quaint concepts like good and evil, right and wrong at this point that the only way to judge it is in terms of its efficacy alone, and in that respect, it’s not only a fitting conclusion, it’s the only one there could possibly be.

There are any number of works of art across all media that are, if you’ll forgive the overused term, “easier to admire than they are to like,” but Dola has created something altogether different here : his comic is damn difficult to admire and even more difficult to like — but it’s also, ultimately, absolutely impossible for any reader who appreciates a challenge not to do both.

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From Granada To Cordoba is available for $40.00 directly from Fantagraphics at https://www.fantagraphics.com/products/from-granada-to-cordoba?_pos=1&_psq=from&_ss=e&_v=1.0

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