Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Contemporary Collections

Moving right along with our next-to-last “best of” list, we come to the Top 10 Contemporary Collections of 2020. Simply put, this category is devoted to collected editions of work originally published, either physically or digitally, since the year 2000, including Manga, webcomics, and Eurocomics. In practice, though, I’ll be honest and admit it’s all fairly recent stuff. Read on and you’ll see what I mean —

10. Inappropriate By Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized) – How the hell spoiled are we these days, anyway? The modern master of disarmingly frank autobio released one of her strongest collections to date and it seemed as though it hardly got a mention in critical circles. Like the Hernandez brothers, Bell’s work is so consistently good that I fear we as readers take it for granted. We shouldn’t — this is a book to be downright thankful for.

9. Snake Creek By Drew Lerman (Self-Published) – Lerman’s first collection of his charming, idiosyncratic strip firmly establishes him as the closest thing we have to a successor to the likes of Charles Schulz and George Herriman. Rest assured I invoke neither name lightly, and that this book backs up the comparison.

8. Goblin Girl By Moa Romanova, Translated By Melissa Bowers (Fantagraphics) – It was a breakout year for Sweden’s Romanova, who cemented her status as a “talent to watch” with the first English-language publication of this unique memoir focused on mental health, self-image and, of course, relationships. If she continues to build on the strength of this astounding book, then the future of this art from we love is in very good hands, indeed.

7. Ghostwriter By Rayco Pulido, Translated By Andrea Rosenberg (Fantagraphics) – A classic Eurocomics mystery thriller set in 1943 Barcelona and featuring a frisson of both political tension and identity confusion, the English-language debut of Spain’s Pulido is a bona fide clinic on how to keep readers off-balance. You’ll be guessing right up to the very end — and left guessing even more afterwards as to how this book didn’t get about ten times more attention and recognition than it did.

6. The Winter Of The Cartoonist By Paco Roca, Translated By Erica Mena (Fantagraphics) – Damn if Fanta doesn’t keep putting out one more Roca masterwork after another, year after year, and this gripping drama about five cartoonists striking out on their own against the big publishing houses in 1957 fascist Spain is more than just a page-turner, it’s possibly the best creators’ rights treatise authored by anyone to date. Another essential read from one of the great auteurs of the medium.

5. J&K By John Pham (Fantagraphics) – A comprehensive collection of the misadventures of Pham’s lovable losers was long overdue, but it was also worth the wait, as this hardback compendium comes complete with more “extras” than you can shake a stick at, including posters, stickers, and a vinyl record! Nobody understands the relationship between printing, packaging, production, and content better than Pham, and this is the most seamlessly-integrated realization of his vision to date.

4. Grip By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – Westvind’s phantasmagoric, whirlwind paen to the strength and resolve of women working in the trades was a revelation in two parts, but reads even more seamlessly collected as a complete epic. It’s also arguably the best use of Riso printing to date in comics. A book of the ages and, even more importantly, for the ages.

3. The Contradictions By Sophie Yanow (Drawn+Quarterly) – Already celebrated as one of the best comics memoirs in recent memory, Yanow’s Eisner Award-winning webcomic gains added depth and emotion in this collected print volume. In fact, it looks and feels like something you’d bring with you on the very sort of European road trip that it documents with such frank and emotive sincerity.

2. Nineteen By Ancco, Translated By Janet Hong (Drawn+Quarterly) – A unique and heady mix of autobio and fiction, Korean cartoonist Ancco’s second book to be translated into English is a showcase for both her artistic versatility and her singular ability to transmute the angst and trauma of youth into truly unforgettable comics stories. If this one doesn’t rip your heart out at least a dozen times over, then you probably don’t have one.

1. Vision By Julia Gfrorer (Fantagraphics) – Originally self-published as a series of minis, Gfroer’s latest work, read in collected form, offers the most succinct and assured crystallization of her singular combination of concerns to date, blending historical “period-piece” storytelling with body horror with feminist theory with supernatural mystery with richly understated social commentary to remind us that what we fear most and what we desire most are often one and the same thing. Intimacy is a double-edged sword throughout Gfrorer’s remarkable body of work, and never more true than it is here, in what is surely the defining statement of her artistic career — so far.

Only one list to go — tomorrow we do the Top 10 Original Graphic Novels of 2020, and then it’s full steam ahead into the new year!

*********************************************************************************************************

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 continuing work, so I’d be very gratified indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look and, should you feel so inclined, join up.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

“My Dog Ivy : A July Diary” — A Pure Distillation Of Everything Gabrielle Bell Does Best

At this point, Gabrielle Bell’s July diary comics are as tried-and-true a ritual as the bonding process between people and animals — so combining the two really only makes sense, doesn’t it?

That being said, as the asterisk on the cover of My Dog Ivy : A July Diary, her latest single-issue “floppy” from Uncivilized Books, makes clear, the titular golden retriever isn’t hers, but belongs to the Twin Cities couple she’s house-sitting for — whose identities should be easy enough to suss out with my having to say so, I would think. Not that Ivy is the only pet she’s charged to take care of, given that two cats are also “on the scene,” and not that watching after all these animals is the only thing that she has on her plate, given that there’s a garden to be tended, as well.

In any case, Bell’s facility for drawing and writing about our furry friends is already well-established, as is her intuitive understanding of life’s slow, well-nigh-indiscernible transitions. You know going into this that it probably won’t be an easy road for Bell and this decidedly neurotic dog to become friends — or at least allies — and that the task of watching after the home and its four-legged inhabitants will almost surely prove to be a bit more than she (or they) bargained for, but you also know that in the end, things will probably work out pretty nicely for everyone involved and that parting will, of course, be sweet sorrow. And all of this is, of course, true — but it’s watching the entire small-scale “saga” unfold in daily snippets that at least approximate “real time” that holds interest and even crosses the border into the fascinating.

I think what I love best about Bell’s diary comics is not only her emotive illustration, but her unvarnished, wry wit — she’s absolutely unafraid to poke fun at herself, but the way in which she does so eschews at worst, transcends at best, mere self-deprecation and honestly conveys her sense of place in the world, however hermetically-sealed that “world” in question may be. The small things that seem overwhelming at first gradually become less so, one-time mountains are reduced to molehills, and while all never was or will be “resolved,” the process of finding a kind of detente that just might result in occasional, if fleeting, moments of joy is what the whole struggle is all about.

It’s too reductive by half to say that the end result of all this is an utterly charming comic, but it’s nevertheless true — perhaps more than any other cartoonist working today, Bell has her finger on the pulse of her own existence in a way that precludes both overstatement (although not, crucially, exaggeration) and understatement. Her frankness can be a bit uncomfortable for new readers, I guess, but she’s in such command of her entire skill-set that within a few pages, pretty much anyone — from the most jaded cynic to the most wet-behind-the-ears “newbie” — is subtly compelled to go with her flow.

All of which means, I suppose, that at the end of the day, this modest collection of what she does best relayed in the manner in which she does it best may not fit every reader’s definition of a “perfect” comic, but it’s a perfect Gabrielle Bell comic — and that will always be something pretty damn special.

******************************************************************************

My Dog Ivy : A July Diary is available for $5.00 from Uncivilized Books at https://uncivilizedbooks.com/my-dog-ivy/

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 do please give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

“All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape” #1 : I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

We’ve certainly spent a lot of time dissecting Josh and Samuel Bayer’s All-Time Comics series on this site lately, and while I’m tempted to say something along the lines of “the beatings will continue until you buy this shit,” in truth I was doing some catch-up work in order to set the stage for the second “season” of this ever-evolving concept. The “zero issue” put out last month by Floating World Comics set the table, but now that All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape #1 has arrived, it’s time for the main course. So — just how tasty is it?

The first few pages — a flashback sequence illustrated by the always-sublime Gabrielle Bell that ties the events of the “prequel” comic in with the series “proper” — are one visually-delicious appetizer, that’s for sure, but for old-time readers, it’s the main 1980s-set portion of the story, drawn by trailblazing “Big Two” veteran Trevor Von Eeden, that’s going to be the main draw, and to say ol’ Trev hasn’t lost a step would be an understatement : his page layouts are as inventive as ever, his sense of dynamic flow remains unfettered, his Krigstein-esque “fine art” sensibilities still razor-sharp and employed for maximum effect.

Rising to meet the challenge thrown down by their artists, co-scripters Josh Bayer and Josh Simmons, both terrific cartoonists in their own right, go right for the jugular, imbuing this homage to the post-“Bronze Age” crossover “event” comic with deliriously OTT ultra-violence, strong broad-stroke characterization, plenty of laugh-out-loud “gallows humor,” and even a bit of logical consistency. Having introduced each of these heroes by means of their individual exploits in “season one,” here they bring them all together to take on a trio of disparate threats, and while it would be a stretch to say that the three-headed “rogues’ gallery” of The Beggar, the wonderfully-named Daylight Savings Time Killer, and the meddlesome Time Vampire Scientist represent a “unified front,” wondering just how they’ll all come together to challenge Blind Justice, Bullwhip, and Crime Destroyer is a big part of the fun here, and speaking of speculation — just where the hell is the mightiest hero in this makeshift “universe,” Atlas?

Das Pastoras’ brutally beautiful cover reflects the “grim and gritty” tone of the era in comics history this series takes place in, but don’t take that to mean there’s no contemporary sensibility at work here — blending the old and the new has been one of the project’s main goals since its inception, but there were many instances in the first six-issue run where the balance was just a bit off, resulting in a tongue-in-cheek tone that couldn’t decide if it was a tribute or a pastiche. That’s hardly an issue with this — errrmmm — issue, though, as the Joshes and their artists nail it from the outset, each individual creator lending their talents to a highly synergistic and energetic whole. These folks, in other words, are cooking with gas.

Arrrggh, again with the food metaphors. I should probably cut this short and eat dinner. But if you’re hungry for a smart, “retro”-flavored comic that knows what it’s doing — one that tips its hat to its influences without being overly beholden to them — then you’re seriously going to dig All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape #1.

Give it a read while I fire up the grill.

******************************************************************************

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. It’s a great— and most welcome — way to help support my work, and given you can join up for as little as a dollar month, I believe invoking the term “what have you got to lose?” is in order here.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 01/28/2018 – 02/03/2018

Would’ja believe — there wasn’t too much that came in my mailbox this week and it was my LCS that kept me busy with new stuff to read? I swear, it’s true, so let’s have a look at some items of note that I picked up —

For a series/line that prides itself on being “old-school,” Josh Bayer’s All-Time Comics seems in some ways to hew pretty closely to modern publishing norms. Issues frequently ship late, for instance, and their latest release, the bumper-sized (and subsequently more expensive than usual) All-Time Comics : Blind Justice #2, marks the end of the first “season” of the range, with an Image-style gap of three or four months now on deck as they get their ducks in a row for their next not-exactly-an-arc. The script this time out is a Bayer solo endeavor, and frankly not the greatest — the last half of the comic essentially being an extended “bad guy rant” — but it’s still kinda “warts and all”-style fun that will appeal to most Bronze Age babies like myself by hitting all the right nostalgic notes. It’s really down to the art to essentially carry most of the weight here, though, and weird as it sounds to even say things like “Noah Van Sciver inked by Al Milgrom” and “Sammy Harkham variant cover,” that’s precisely what you get here, and it’s every bit as awesome to look at as said phrases would lead you to expect. I have no doubt that the overall ATC project will continue to confound readers looking for some over-arching unifying grand purpose, as it appears that Bayer and co. really don’t seem to have one, but for my money that’s a large part of the appeal of what they’re doing, and even though I’m sure admitting as much will brand me an intellectual simpleton in the minds of many in the critical community, I’m seriously looking forward to seeing where this whole thing goes next, as regulars like Benjamin Marra return to the fold and newcomers like Gabrielle Bell (yes, you read that right!) join in the four-color carnage. Operating in a previously-unexplored middle ground that exists between the polarities of “homage” and “spoof,” these comics are hitting a “sweet spot” for me — even when they run six bucks, as this one did.

It’ll cost you seven, though, to pick up the second issue of Shelly Bond’s Black Crown Quarterly, and to be honest, I think I’ve seen enough at this point. The format’s nice, with heavy cardstock covers and high-quality glossy paper, and to be honest, most of the individual strips range in quality from “pretty decent” (Rob Davis’ “Tales From The Black Crown Pub,” Jamie Coe’s “Bandtwits,” Leah Moore and Nanna Venter’s “Hey, Amateur! How To Be A Badass Goth In Nine Panels”) to “actually quite good” (“Cannonball Comics” by Christopher Sebela and Shawn McManus, who illustrates in a very engaging and eye-popping style quite unlike anything he’s ever done), but the “Cud : Rich and Strange” ongoing by Will Potter, Carl Puttnam and Philip Bond continues to be a dud, the inclusion of more preview pages for David Barnett and Martin Simmonds’ forthcoming Punks Not Dead make me wonder if we’re not going to end up seeing the entire first issue before it even comes out, and the text pieces are either essentially extended promo blurbs for other Black Crown titles like Kid Lobotomy, or else self-consciously “hip” music and travel recommendations. What frustrates most about BCQ, though, is that Bond’s hopelessly dated tastes and aesthetic sensibilities end up making the overall package less than the sum of its parts, and at the end of the day it almost feels like she’s assembling a comic for an audience of one — herself. Unless you, too, are an anglophile whose musical knowledge doesn’t extend beyond the borders of late-’70s UK punk, it’s hard to see the appeal in an anthology this specifically — and rigidly — constructed. Gotta love the pull-out poster featuring the Bill Sienkiewicz cover variant for Punks Not Dead #1, though.

In what passes for a “bargain” this week, five bucks will get you in the door of Justice League Of America/Doom Patrol Special #1, and while it’s not a spectacular read or anything of the sort, I did have fun with this first part of “Milk Wars,” a five-part weekly crossover that sees Gerard Way’s Young Animal line clashing head-on with the “proper” DC Universe. Way and Steve Orlando wrote the script for this book, and thematically and tonally it seems pretty well right in line with what the My Chemical Romance lead singer is doing with his main Doom Patrol series, in that it borrows equally from Grant Morrison’s run on the book and Larry Cohen’s cult-favorite horror/comedy hybrid The Stuff. I don’t know much about the current Justice League Of America line-up, but it appears to be a bunch of B-and C-list characters like Lobo and Vixen, so I guess re-casting them all as a 1950s neighborhood decency brigade is no particular skin off DC editorial’s back, and for the purposes of this story the conceit works — as does ACO’s frenetic, mildly psychedelic art. Perhaps even better than the main feature, though, is the two-page backup strip, which begins what I’m assuming will be an extended introduction to the character of Eternity Girl, who will soon be featuring in her own series courtesy of this story’s creators, Magdalene Visaggio and Sonny Liew. I’m as shocked as anyone to see a cartoonist of Liew’s caliber taking on an assignment for DC, and equally shocked that he wouldn’t just write it himself since that’s how he’s made his bread and butter previously, but if this brief Silver Age-style yarn is any indication, he and Visaggio should make a good team. Anyway, all in all, this comic stood head, shoulders, and udders (read it and you’ll get what that reference is all about) above most “Big Two” fare.

Lastly, we come to Motehrlands #1, the first of a new Vertigo six-parter from writer Simon Spurrier and artist Rachael Stott that proudly wears its 2000AD influence on its sleeve and isn’t afraid to plunge you in at the deep end from the get-go and trust that you’ll catch up — at some point. The action’s pretty breakneck in this one, though, and absolutely absurd, so don’t expect much hand-holding in this wild mash-up of badass-bounty-hunter, “reality” TV, and dysfunctional family tropes, our main protagonist being an inter-dimensional mercenary skip-tracer who lures her mother, a sort of washed-up female version of that “Dawg” guy, out of retirement in order to help track down the third member of the clan, the good-for-nothing brother/son. It’s a fast-paced and — here’s that word again — fun read, and Stott’s art is a nice mix of the conventional and the far-out, so I’m probably gonna stick it out in single issues, but if you missed the first installment, “trade-waiting” probably wouldn’t do you any harm, and will more than likely save you a few dollars.

Okay, I think that’s good enough for now — the small-press stuff was in short supply this week, which is kind of a bummer, but I’ve got a box on the way from Retrofit any day now of some comics I missed out on from the tail end of 2017, so hopefully I’ll have read enough of those books by this time next week to talk about at least some of them in my next round-up column. Hope to see you again in seven short days!

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Graphic Novels

And so we’ve arrived at this, our final — and, I’m sure for some, most significant — “best of” list of the year, surveying 2017’s top 10 graphic novels. Quick reminder of our “house rules” : these have to be original works designed from the outset for the GN format, not collected works of any sort, which have already been covered on our contemporary and vintage collected editions lists — and, as always, no real “reviews” here (chances are I’ve reviewed most, if not all, of these somewhere or other online already), just quick summaries of why they’re all so fucking awesome. Okay, let’s do this!

10. Vague Tales by Eric Haven (Fantagraphics) – Long one of the most intriguing, if sporadic, cartoonists around, here Haven constructs a fascinating and surreal overarching story from mostly-silent vignettes featuring barbarians, super-heroes, sexy sorceresses, and monsters that borrow equally from Jack Kirby, Fletcher Hanks, Winsor McCay, and Charles Burns — then he throws it all into a blender, cranks it up to “high,” and serves up something utterly unique, yet somehow eerily (hell, vaguely) familiar. We know all the elements at play here, but have never seen them combined in this fashion.

9. Old Ground by Noel Freibert (Koyama Press) – Amorphous, inky black shapes that coagulate, coalesce, dissemble, and reconstitute themselves at both will and random are the primary visual motifs Freibert employs in this bizarre, humorous, at times even touching tale of gentrification looming down upon a haunted graveyard. Nothing is steady or predictable in this world, every new panel an uncertainty waiting to reveal itself to readers and, it seems, artist — and while a fluid and organic work focused on death and decay may sound like a contradiction at first, it all works superbly and there’s a very real sense that this story is almost making itself up as it goes along.

8. Cartoon Clouds by Joseph Remnant (Fantagraphics) – I thought another art school memoir was the last thing needed in both the “alternative” comics scene and, quite frankly, my life, but Remnant hooked me within a few pages with his crisp dialogue, smart characterization, and meticulous linework — and once he got those hooks in, he didn’t let go. A deliriously authentic “coming-of-age” tale that anyone who’s ever been in their early twenties and at loose ends can relate to easily and completely.

7. Anti-Gone by Connor Willumsen (Koyama Press) – A post-apocalyptic tale like no other that takes dead aim at any number of targets — environmental degradation, hyper-capitalism, youthful lethargy, mass consumerism, virtual realities — and hits them all with stylish minimalist efficiency, Willumsen’s book demands that you spend time looking at it from multiple angles, then trusts you to make up your own mind. Supremely assured stuff that not only requires you to meet it on its own terms, but challenges you to figure out what those terms even are.

6. Spinning by Tillie Walden (First Second) – The “big breakthrough” from an artist who’s been edging toward one for the past couple of years is here, and Walden’s memoir of her formative years — with a special focus on her figure skating education, hence the title — fully delivers on the promise of her previous works, plus interest.  As confident as it is inventive in its visual narrative, this is a powerfully understated shot across the bow from a 21-year-old cartoonist seizing her moment for all it’s worth. If you want to know who’s going to be making the most talked-about comics for the next decade (or more), look no further.

5. Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Bursting with kaleidoscopic imagery and psychedelic imagination, Jacobs’ third graphic novel for Annie Koyama continues his ascent toward the throne of contemporary visual storytellers with more envy-inducing sheer originality than ever. This tale of a washing machine that serves as a gateway for children to a Narnia-esque fantasyland may have universal cautionary themes at its core, but the manner in which they’re conveyed is absolutely singular in nature. Taste the rainbow.

4. Fire!! : The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge (Drawn+Quarterly) – When a cartoonist sells his fucking house in order to finance his work on a project, you know he’s committed to it, and Bagge’s dedication to an authentic recounting of the life of the most interesting, and criminally overlooked, of the “Harlem Renaissance” authors certainly pays dividends to his readers. Did you ever think that the guy behind Neat Stuff and Hate would become the premier graphic biographer of his generation as the “third act” of his already-storied career? I’ll freely confess that I didn’t see it coming, but now that it’s here, I have to admit that I’m even more interested in seeing who Bagge’s next subject will be than I was in finding out whether Buddy and Lisa were going to kill each other or live happily ever after.

3. Everything Is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books) – Long the reigning royalty of diary cartooning, here Bell weaves her daily visual journals into a poignant rumination on the mother-daughter relationship that’s fraught with tension, tumult, toil, and tenderness, the fine line between polite civility and the raw nerves underlying it always mere centimeters away from being crossed, maybe even tripped over. Proof positive that reality is infinitely more complex than anything fiction can dish out.

2. The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond (Drawn+Quarterly) – The second of Pond’s “Imperial Cafe” memoirs sees the dark storm clouds of the 1980s gathering over the heads of her ensemble (out)cast(s), but never fear — the whimsy, the moxie, and the heart we first saw from everyone in Over Easy haven’t gone anywhere — and deep reserves of each are going to be needed in order to get through all that’s coming. Sooner or later life takes us all in different directions, but letting go of people, places, and even stages of existence is never easy, is it? And while Pond’s book may be about coming to terms with endings we don’t want to see happen, we should all be damn glad that she’s still working through the implications of this particular phase of her life some 30 years later — heck, by the time this book is over, you won’t be ready to say good-bye to it any more than she is/was. Most comics are lousy, plenty of comics are good, a few comics are great — but this comic? This one’s pure magic.

1. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) – Most cartoonists show up on the scene with a pretty steep “learning curve” ahead of them, and that’s all well, good, and to be expected — but once in a great while lightning strikes and someone arrives “fully formed.” Never, though, have I seen anyone do what Emil Ferris has done here — break into this still-maligned medium of ours with a work that’s light-years ahead of what pretty much anyone and everyone else is doing. By now you’ve read all the raves about her book and seen it atop more or less everyone’s “best of the year” lists — but, if anything, this sprawling and multi-layered tale that’s part youthful memoir, part mystery, part family drama, part Chicago history, and part love letter to Universal’s “Monster Era” has so far been underappreciated for all that it both represents and is. Consider : 15 years ago the West Nile Virus left Ferris unemployed, broke, raising a child on her own, and temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Today, she’s the author of the best and most important graphic novel of the 21st century (at least to date) — and she drew it entirely with Bic and Flair pens. Permission to be in awe? Fully granted.

And on that note — we’re done here. Go forth and read ye some great comics.

 

 

“Now” We’re Talking

As any long-time reader of purportedly “alternative” and/or “indie” comics can tell you, one of the defining traits of the medium in every decade is a kind of “state of the art form” manifesto that’s not so much written as it is mapped out by the varying-to-disparate editorial sensibilities of, and even a kind of de facto creative tension that arises between, two contrasting and contemporary anthologies. As that same long-time reader (in this case, me) can tell you, though, the one-time gulf that separated said pair of anthos (whatever they may be) has been narrowing over time — first to a gap, then to a short hop, and now, perhaps, to something that looks very much like a convergence.

In the 1980s, for instance, despite the occasional cartoonist who could safely appear in both, the “high art” ethos (or, if you’re so inclined, pretensions) of Raw were pretty far removed from the punk-infused, DIY, “low-brow” populism of Weirdo, which not only wasn’t afraid to play around in the gutter, but seemed downright at home there — but as their respective spots were assumed by Drawn And Quarterly and Zero Zero in the ’90s, the goal posts of each shifted closer to the other. Closer still were Kramers Ergot and MOME in the so-called “aughts.” But ever since MOME closed up shop in 2011, Kramers has pretty much had the entire playing field to itself.

Not that other anthologies haven’t turned up here and there, mind you — many of them quite good. But these tended to be one-off affairs, often constructed around an editorially-dictated central theme or conceit, rather than, to invoke a sickeningly over-used term, curated publications whose nominal-to-the-point-of-being-oblique themes have to be teased out by readers by dint of the “running order” of strip presentation, a la Kramers — that is, until now. More specifically, until Now.

Former MOME editor Eric Reynolds has decided to “get back in the game,” so to speak, with a new thrice-yearly anthology that even comes complete with a (poorly-worded, but whatever) “mission statement” of sorts. To quote directly from Reynolds’ introduction : “I want to leverage Fantagraphics’ stature in the marketplace to put out an affordable and ongoing print anthology that showcases as broad a range of quality comic art as possible – and to put it under as many eyes as possible. I want to make an anthology that looks inviting to a casual comics reader but challenges them as they dig deeper. I want to encourage a revival of the short story in the age of long form graphic novels. I want to showcase as diverse a collection of cartoonists and comics as possible, one that provides a full spectrum of what the medium has to offer” — all noble goals, surely, even if the first and the last are, ya know, basically the same thing. Methinks the editor may need — an editor?

Pedantic bullshit aside, though, who am I to argue with Reynolds’ logic? And his opening night gala has a heck of a guest list : Rebecca Morgan provides the eye-catching (to say the least) cover, with three-panel back cover strip by Nick Thorburn; Sara Corbett, Gabrielle Bell, and Kramers‘ own Sammy Harkham contribute one-page strips (all quite strong); Tobias Schalken, Dash Shaw, Tommi Parrish, Kaela Graham, Daria Tessler, Conxita Hererro, and the team of cartoonist Malachi Ward and co-writer Matt Sheean chime in with medium-length strips; and Eleanor Davis, J.C. Menu, Noah Van Sciver, and Antoine Cosse serve up what we’ll call, for lack of a better term (that I can think of at the moment, at any rate) “feature-length” strips. A nice mix of veteran and emerging talent, indeed.

If pressed to pick one “standout work,” I’d probably have to go with Davis’ “Hurt Or Fuck,” a deceptively-simple interpretive piece that expertly uses the gaps in its own internal logic to heighten its emotional resonance and that, in true Davis fashion, doesn’t pack a punch so much as it leaves an invisible mark with a bittersweet (but mostly bitter) sting that lingers for days, but Van Sciver’s “Wall Of Shame” is a superb and eminently relatable autobio story not to be missed, Shaw’s “Scorpio” is an entirely unsubtle but nonetheless highly effective juxtaposition of a difficult childbirth with a just-as-difficult election night 2016 result (hey, a 128-page anthology can’t be expected to — fuck, in my view shouldn’t — avoid at least a little bit of Trump-bashing somewhere along the way), Graham’s “Pretend We’re Orphans” is a lavishly-illustrated “dark fairy tale” that effortlessly recalls memories of being scared in just the right way before bedtime, and Ward and Sheean’s “Widening Horizon” posits an alternate trajectory — extrapolated from a handful of genuinely historical roads not taken — of international space travel that both forces and invites, in equal measure, one to consider Utopian alternatives to any number of societal ills if only, ya know, shit had worked out differently (as in better) in the past.  Any of these strips are worth the price of admission (something we’ll get to momentarily) alone, but to have them all between the same two covers is more than enough to cement Now #1’s place as one of the very best comics of the year.

Are there some misfires to be found here, though? Of course, but even there nobody fails for lack of trying : Hererro’s “Here I Am” is a re-contextualized version of an earlier Bell strip that’s gorgeously drawn, but fails to bring forth anything new from its “source material,” nor to add much by way of a distinctive personality it can call its own; Schalken’s wordless “21 Positions/The Final Frontier” misses its chance to coalesce at the last moment even though it’s right there for the taking (although maybe that’s the whole point and I’m just stupid); Cosse’s “Statue” tries to pack a bit too much “food for thought” into what is a sprawling, languidly-paced visual narrative; Menu’s “S.O.S. Suitcases” has enough going for it on its own merits that its author is just plain wasting his time by leaning on Lloyd Dangle and Gary Panter “influence crutches”; Tessler’s “Songs In The Key Of Grief” take us on an incredible post- “television age” psychedelic journey but fails to clue us in on why we should want to go along for the ride; Parrish’s untitled strip offers a fascinating and informative look at changing (indeed, evolving) gender identity mores and their cause-and-effect relationship with sexual orientation but is, alas, just a touch too earnest and “lecture hall”-ish for its own good. Not a “bad” offering in the lot, by any means, but all examples of strips that set out to do something they don’t quite manage to achieve. “Fascinating but flawed,” I think, is the exact phrase I’m looking for.

It’s in analyzing the whole, though, that things get really interesting : it’s clear that Reynolds has already succeeded, just one issue into things, in doing precisely what he wanted to with Now — there’s a lot of great material to be found here, a lot of “almost great” material, and no real “clunkers” in the bunch. Furthermore, it’s presented nicely (but not too nicely) and at a very reasonable price ($9.99 for 128 pages? Where are you gonna do better than that?) — and for a final flourish, it even manages to incorporate its economic populism into its overall aesthetic, its editorial being short and to the point, its table of contents being printed on the back cover, and its cover stock being of more or less the “standard comic book” variety. The paper’s slick but not anything you wouldn’t find in an Image or Dark Horse comic; its dimensions are no taller — and only slightly wider — than, say, a Marvel or DC “floppy” single issue; it’s squarebound, but just a simple glued binding — no doubt, this is “art comics” packaged for the mass market, and for mass consumption.

And that fact, more than anything, is what convinces me that the “dueling anthologies” paradigm is back — only this time they’re not even “dueling” at all. Honestly, any and all of the strips in Now #1 would feel every bit as “at home” in the next volume of Kramers Ergot. The same aesthetic impulses seem to be driving both publications, and besides, ever-emerging delivery platforms have blown open comics as widely as they have music and film by this point. The old divisions, already diminishing, are gone altogether now and quality work will, one way or another, find its way to an audience.  The only question is whether it will be via a computer screen, a reasonably-priced printed periodical, or a fancy, deluxe, over-sized book complete with numerous bells and whistles. There’s a place for all of it. There’s a market for all of it. Hell, for hungry readers and starving cartoonists alike, there’s definitely a need for all of it.

In that sense, then, what Reynolds and Fantagraphics (who, let’s not forget, also publishes Kramers these days) are doing here is filling in an essential gap, and serving an under-served segment of the comics community. Reading through this book made me realize just how much I’d missed having a top-quality anthology available on a consistent basis at a price that didn’t break the bank. I wish it had happened sooner, absolutely — but I’m glad it’s happening Now.