More Of The Same, But Different : Gerald Jablonski’s “Cryptic Wit” #4

For a guy who prides himself on being “in the know” about all things small press and self-published, sometimes it’s downright frightening to discover how much can still pass by my notice. I mean, I’m not arrogant enough to assume that everyone making anything worthwhile automatically knows they should send their wares in my direction, but most days my mailbox is full enough that it certainly feels as if that might be the case.

That being said, it’s still inarguably true that a cartoonist has to be “plugged in” to a certain degree to even know who the fuck I am in the first place, and one of the best things about Gerald Jablonski’s comics is how utterly divorced they are not just from the current state of the comics “scene” but from any and all forms of convention in a general sense. The overly-dense page layouts, the way overly-dense dialogue, the astonishingly repetitious themes, the downright labyrinthine word balloon tails, the go-nowhere “plots” — there’s nothing in a Jablonski strip that makes any allowances. And I don’t just mean allowances for the “rules of the game,” so to speak, but for readers themselves. You meet this stuff entirely on its own terms, or you head for the exits. I don’t think Jablonski himself is bothered much either way.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise after all, then, that a new issue of Jablonski’s Cryptic Wit — #4 for those keeping track at home — came out at some point last year as an IndyPlanet print-on-demand job to little notice and even less fanfare, but there’s something that’s just plain wrong about that : I mean, these are the most dizzyingly uncompromising comics around. The plain fact that they’re the funniest, as well, is just icing on the cake.

Who knows? Maybe Jablonski gets all his self-promoting out of his system by means of the never-shy-about-proclaiming-his-own-greatness Farmer Ned? And while we’re on that subject, I suppose he’s as good a place as any to start analyzing what makes this particular issue different from those that have come before it. I mean, I wouldn’t say Ned has “toned down” his boastfulness by any stretch, but it is truncated — and so are a good many of these strips. Relatively speaking, of course.

Whether due to physical necessity, artistic whim, or some of both, a fair number of the “stories” in this “new” issue — which appears to collect several year’s worth of material — are tighter, while the art and lettering appear more loose. In sheer qualitative terms, this is no big deal either way — this shit’s still as great as ever — but you can probably get through this issue in four hours rather than six, and a handful of the strips herein consist of “only” 12 panels rather than the customary 25-30. They don’t read as being anything other than the length they’re designed to be — Jablonski’s comics owe precisely nothing to traditional definitions of “pacing,” anyway — but I think this marks an intriguing change to largely static and hermetically-sealed “universe.” Things, however, get weirder still as they go on —

Farmer Ned becoming a beer spokesman and then leaving the barnyard to try his hand as a big city private eye? The vaguely Reagan-looking “kid” having solo “adventures” without the vaguely Ford-looking “kid”? A silent strip about some rats attacking a kitchen and being confronted by a ghost? Strips with none of those trademark word balloon tails? The Howdy, Dee Dee, and Dee Dee’s silent friend stuff is essentially unchanged, but even there, the silent friends seems, if anything, even more surplus to requirements than usual — but then, as “strange” as this all may seem to veteran Jablonski readers, it’s not like we can really pretend these comics weren’t infinitely strange to begin with.

Hell, I’d go so far as to say that’s why we love this stuff — precisely because none of it should work, but within the confines of its own self-generated “bubble,” all of it invariably does. Comparing Jablonski to other cartoonists is pointless. Comparing him to other artists in any medium is pointless. And while the “little variations” from one strip to another are seismic shifts worthy of no end of analysis, discussion, and speculation among the Jablonski faithful, at the end of the day the only answer we have to or for any of them is “guess he felt like doing it that way.” And really — anything over, above, and beyond that is wholly unnecessary.

“It is the way it is because that’s how it is” may seem like the ultimate intellectual cop-out, I admit, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And Gerald Jablonski is still more true to himself and his vision than anybody else working in this medium. There are more accomplished comics than his. There are more intelligent comics than his. There are more influential comics than his. There aren’t more honest, more personal, more fully-realized comics than his — and there really aren’t any better ones, either.

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Cryptic Wit #4 is available for $9.50 from the IndyPlanet website at https://indyplanet.com/cryptic-wit-4

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 continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Collected Editions (Contemporary)

Let’s keep plugging away here, shall we? This time around on out year-end wrap we’re looking at the top 10 collected editions of 2017, with a slight change to my previously-announced methodology : rather than placing everything “Modern Age” (roughly the 1980s) and beyond in this category, I’ve narrowed it to collections of comics published post-2000, so that everything being referred to as “contemporary” at least comes from, ya know, this century. Apart from that, however, the category remains a fairly broad one : TPB or hardcover collections of single issues, webcomics collections, diary comics collections, and anthologies all fall into what I consider to be “collected editions” — in other words, a lot of this stuff is more or less brand new, and many critics who don’t share my OCD affliction might even call some of these “graphic novels.” I’m not gonna do it that way, though, because my list of the top 10 graphic novels is going to be just that : original graphic novels constructed from the outset to be published as a single volume.

That’s it for the particulars, then, apart from a reminder that there may be a couple of tail-end-2016 releases that make their way onto these lists because they hit shops too late to be properly reviewed by yours truly last year, and that each book will be summarized quickly — these are not proper “reviews” or anything of the sort. Okay, let’s do this!

10. Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero by Michael DeForge (Drawn+Quarterly) – DeForge revealed a more whimsical and even, dare I say it, “fun” side in these single-page webcomics, and they read very cohesively as a collection. Absurdist humor, an idiosyncratic protagonist, and a decidedly revisionist take on “funny animals” combine to form a typically singular (there’s a contradiction for you) DeForge reading experience.

9. Sunburning by Keiler Roberts (Koyama Press) – Roberts’ autobio webcomics are a stark look at life’s challenges and its subtle beauty and they balance the joys and drudgeries of parenting with a quiet and unassuming honesty that’s entirely un-sentimental, but not in any way clinical. In addition, her simple-but-detailed illustration draws the eye in to notice every little detail, and there are a lot of details to notice. It’s always a pleasure to see her work collected in print, and this is her strongest book yet.

8. A Process Of Drastically Reducing One’s Expectations by Gabby Schulz (Phase Eight Publishing) – If you know Schulz, you know that this collection of his diary comics won’t be an “easy” read — he doesn’t spell out the particulars of his life with any great specificity, but you can see his mental, physical, and financial deterioration playing out before your eyes in a manner as relentless as it is nonchalant. So, yeah, this is no “easy” read — but it’s a compelling and engrossing one, no doubt about it.

7. Band For Life by Anya Davidson (Fantagraphics) – These chronicles of a multi-species punk band in a sci-fi future Chicago sure seem an awful lot like those of people I knew in my 20s who were in bands, so I guess that means the themes here are timeless, indeed. And Davison herself reflects the never-say-die ethos of her protagonists : after fleeing Vice’s digital sweatshop, she continued posting these strips on her Tumblr page, and finally saw them through to completion in this magnificent hardback collection.

6. Boundless by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn+Quarterly) – Breathtaking illustration, ethereal themes, and naturalistic visual storytelling combine to make this collection of Tamaki’s strips a supremely memorable read, one that analyzes her female progatonists’ complex relationships with themselves, their bodies, their hopes and fears, and their self-image with disarming candor and incredible grace. Stirring, soul-searing stuff.

5. You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis (Koyama Press) – This travelogue composed of diary strips and single illustrations documenting Davis’ bicycle trip from her parents’ home in Arizona to her adoptive hometown of Athens, Ga. doesn’t chain itself to anything like a traditional narrative framework, instead providing an interpretive, experiential look at a journey every bit as philosophical, even spiritual, as it is physical. Another resoundingly resonant work from someone making a very strong case to be considered the cartoonist of her generation.

4. Mirror Mirror II , edited by Julia Gfrorer and Sean T. Collins (2dcloud) – The second volume of 2dcloud’s annual(-ish) anthology has a loose “horror” theme at its core, buy beyond that editors Gfrorer and Collins really do give their contributors free reign to explore the subject in wide-open, entirely unique ways. And what a group of contributors they’ve got! A unique mix of folks we see a lot of working in other genres (Simon Hanselmann, Josh Simmons), folks whose work typically does tend toward the horrific (Gfrorer, Noel Freibert, Clive Barker — yes, really!), and folks we just plain don’t get to see anywhere near enough of these days (Al Columbia, Renee French, Dame Darcy, Carol Swain, Nicole Claveloux), all presented in the kind of uncompromisingly high-quality package we’ve come to expect from this premier “boutique” art-comics publisher. This is a book overflowing with both dark beauty and artistic integrity.

3. Providence Acts Two And Three by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – I’ve raved enough about this series over the last couple of years — but goddamn, it’s so good that I almost feel as if I’ve undersold it. Suffice to say, Moore and Burrows have created what  is undoubtedly the smartest, most richly-detailed, most multi-layered horror comic in history. Act Two collects issues 5-8, Act Three finishes the story off with issues 9-12.

2. True Swamp Book 2: Anywhere But In — by Jon Lewis (Uncivilized Books) – Finally collecting Lewis’ two “bumper-sized” issues from the early “aughts,” his second go-round with the foul-mouthed (but hyper-intelligent) Lenny the Frog and his bog-dwelling friends is, if anything, even more funny, smart, and endearing than the first, and far more visually accomplished and experimental. Matching the wit and charm of Walt Kelly’s Pogo with a distinct underground sensibility, there has simply never been another comic like True Swamp — and, chances are, there never will be again. I believe “sublime” is the word we’re looking for.

1. Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn by Gerald Jablonski (Fantagraphics Underground) – At last presented in the oversized format that these dense, information-packed (both visually and verbally) strips pretty much demand, this near-as-we’re-ever-likely-to-get-to-definitive collection of Jablonski’s work showcases his singular genius in a manner his small-but-dedicated legion of fans could only have dreamed of until it finally happened. Utterly unlike any other comics ever even conceived of — much less done — by anyone else, this is a hermetically-sealed universe unto itself where the rules of what “should” or “shouldn’t” work not only don’t apply, but simply don’t matter. Jablonski reigns supreme in his kingdom of one.

Okay, looks like that’ll do it! Again, this list seemed like a daunting thing to put together until I started doing it, and then it all came together almost on its own, as if it were just being channeled through me. Freaky, huh?

Next up : my picks for the top 10 collections of vintage (as in, pre-2000) comics released in 2017. Hope to see you back here in a couple of days for that one!