Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

So — here we are. The end of the road as far as our year-end “Top 10” lists go and, I would imagine, the one of most interest to the greatest number of readers — my picks for favorite original graphic novels of 2018, emphasis on the word “original.” One of our selections started life as a mini-comic, but was fleshed out greatly to become what it is today, while everything else on the list is a wholly original, not-previously-serialized work, designed and constructed especially for release in the “graphic novel” format. I think that’s about all the preamble required, so pardon me while I roll up my sleeves and type my ass off for a few minutes —

10. Monkey Chef By Mike Freiheit (Kilgore Books) – Our resident “rule-breaker” is first out of the gate, a book whose eventual greatness was hinted at in some self-published minis, but really came into its own when completed and collected between two covers. Freiheit’s autobiographical saga of his time cooking for primates (and their evolutionary descendants) in South Africa while falling in love with someone halfway across the world is possibly the most flat-out enjoyable read of the year, as well as a spectacular showcase for his fully-emerged skills as both illustrator and colorist. If Hollywood’s paying any attention, this would make a great movie — but it’ll always be an even better comic.

9. The Winner By Karl Stevens (Retrofit/Big Planet) – Another autobio book? Why yes, it is, and a downright spectacular one at that, as Stevens shines a brightly illuminating light on “the artist’s life” of underemployment, addiction/recovery, and the never-ending struggle to find both something worth saying and a way to say it. Illustrated in a breathtaking variety of styles with painstaking attention to detail as well as care and emotion to spare, this book is also an understated but deeply moving verbal and visual love poem to his wife and muse. Genuine tour de force stuff in every respect.

8. Poochytown By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)  – The first of three essentially wordless books on this list (take that to mean what you will about my own discipline as a reader — or, rather, lack thereof), Woodring’s latest excursion into the “Unifactor” results in his most harrowing, “trippy,” lushly-rendered, and hilarious “Frank” story yet. So goddamn charming it’s almost painful — but it’s the kind of pain that feels really good and looks even better.

7. I Am Young By M. Dean (Fantagraphics) – Heartfelt, bold, and addictively page-turning — to say nothing of absolutely gorgeous to look at — Dean’s examination of love’s sudden arrival and slow-burn diffusion is virtuoso work, each page replete with raw and honest emotion and eye-poppingly beautiful illustration. Love hurts, yeah, you know it and I know it — but you’re gonna love this book precisely for that fact, rather than in spite of it.

6. Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters By Alex Degen (Koyama Press) – A sci-fi silent movie rendered in lavish and explosive color that’s part breakneck adventure yarn, part dystopian nightmare, and all unique unto itself, Degen throws down a gauntlet here that few should even attempt to pick up, simply because no one else speaks his entirely self-created sequential art language. “Like nothing before or since” is the starting point of this book rather than the end result — go with its flow, and end up somewhere entirely and alluringly unexpected.

5. Lawns By Alex Nall (Kilgore Press) – One of the most exciting new talents to come along in the last few years, Nall “puts it all together” in his strongest work yet, a vaguely Lynch-ian examination of one small town resident’s quest to simply be left the fuck alone to live his life, his way. We’ve been hearing a lot about comics that capture the “cultural moment” in 2018, and while I intend no offense to works like Sabrina or A House In The Jungle, the simple truth of the matter is that, for my money, this book manages that task with much more humor, heart, and deceptive ease than its “fellow travelers” by a country mile. Where and who we are is a deep and profound question, of course, but equally important is whatever answer we come up with. I would submit that Nall hits the nail precisely on the head in that regard, and does so in a manner that almost anyone can relate to.

4. In Christ There Is No East Or West By Mike Taylor (Fantagraphics Underground) – This one arrived late and shook up the preliminary “running order” of my entire list more or less immediately. A metaphysical travelogue of the soul that journeys inward precisely at a time when so many comics are focused outward, Taylor’s book resonates so deeply and so strongly that reading it is akin to an epiphany — and the fact that it boasts arguably the finest production values of the year certainly doesn’t hurt, either. My God, that fold-out poster cover! Even leaving aside the bells and whistles, though, this is about as confident and unforgettable an artistic and philosophical statement of intent as you’re likely to encounter in this medium of ours this year — and possibly for many to come.

3. The Lie And How We Told It By Tommi Parrish (Fantagraphics) – Don’t let the amorphous and eternally transient (in every sense of the word) nature of Parrish’s dual protagonists fool you, this is a story that knows exactly what it’s doing, even if the characters in neither of its concurrent narratives seem to. Picture one raw nerve spread out over the course of well over a hundred pages and getting thinner and more frayed as it goes and you’re getting some idea of what’s going on in this comic, even though it’s ostensibly simply “about” two estranged friends catching up on their lives after a chance meeting, and the book one of them finds along the way. Parrish’s vibrant painted comics certainly have a singular look to them, but it’s the singular way the cartoonist grapples with issues of personal, sexual, gender, and body identity that makes them one of the most ground-breaking and challenging talents to come along in — just about ever, really.

2. Grip Vol. 1 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – A non-stop tidal wave of action, dynamism, and unapologetic feminism that leaves the need for dialogue and captions in the dust, Westvind manages to do something hitherto-unseen in this book by marrying superhero tropes with a salute to working women (particularly those in the so-called “blue collar” trades) to create the most visually stimulating comic of the year, but also one that fully engages the mind and heart as surely as it does the eyes. One of the most powerful comics to come down the pipeline in ages, actually, but ultimately even more notable for how empowering it is. Simply put — prepare to be blown away.

1. Qoberious Vol. 1 (Self-Published) – As thematically and conceptually dense as it is physically slim, the debut graphic novel by the mysterious (and pseudonymous) D.R.T., rendered in a style that most approximates the look of weathered or otherwise-muted animation cels, is something I honestly don’t think this medium has ever produced before : a work that not only reveals new depths with each successive re-read, but literally forces you to interpret and analyze it in entirely new ways. I’ve read it something like 20 times now, and no two experiences have been the same, even if certain themes (physical bondage, alienation from society, from family, and even from oneself) persist. Readers will be poring over this one for decades to come, unable to even verbalize the nature of the feelings it elicits, never mind how and why it manages to do so. An artifact from another, infinitely more artistically advanced, civilization than our own, language is too outmoded a tool for expressing the sheer sense of admiration and amazement I have for what is unquestionably my pick for book of the year.

And so — that’s 2018, boiled down to six lists. I read a lot of other good stuff, as well as plenty of crap, in the past 12 months, and would sincerely like to thank those of you who came along for the ride and made the first year of Four Color Apocalypse a bigger success (in terms of sheer readership numbers, at any rate) than I ever could have possibly imagined. Next week we get back down to business as usual, and start the long, but no doubt enjoyable, process of finding out what the best books of next year are going to be!

Get A “Grip”

Where the “average” wordless comic often comes across as the result of a choice made by the cartoonist to communicate her or his story by means of the purely visual “half” of the medium, Lale Westvind’s 2018-released Grip (specifically, Grip Vol. 1, as this is the 68-page opening installment of a planned longer-form “graphic novel”) seems to eschew dialogue, captions, sound effects, and related ephemera (barring the occasional, expertly-placed exception) as a matter of sheer necessity, recognizing them less as an unnecessary encumbrance that would only get in the way of the tale being told, but as outright obstacles that would actually detract from the proceedings. I defy anyone to get any further than the first page and disagree with that assessment.

Westvind’s nothing if not an inarguable master of her craft at this point — primarily known for her contributions to any number of high-profile anthologies, this marks her longest work to date, and she approaches it with a staggering amount of entirely-earned confidence, a literal whirlwind giving her unnamed protagonist/heroine the “power” of constantly-moving hands (hence, ya know, the title and all that) while a metaphorical whirlwind of at least equal might, power and, when necessary, ferocity, rushes readers along at breakneck pace from one city to another, one blue-collar job to another, one exotic locale to another, finally culminating in a battle royale against an equally-cyclonic “supervillain” in a jungle clearing that’s about to get “cleared out” a whole lot more.

No arguing that the plot is bare-bones stuff, but the subtext in anything but : hiding in plain sight within all of Westvind’s post-psychedelic visual explosions, lavishly rendered in a rich risograph tri-color scheme by printers/publishers Perfectly Acceptable Press (who, as is absolutely expected of them by this point, pull out all the stops as far as the book’s production values go), is one of the most earnest and joyous expressions of thanks to women working in the trades you’re ever likely to see. Seriously, “Rosie The Riveter” has nothing on Westvind’s thick, powerful, muscular, always-assured-and-confident carpenters, welders, and plumbers, all of whom are observed in close detail by our heroine and her temporary sidekick (in fairness, a student — of life, at the very least) with a kind of reverent awe that provides the inspiration necessary for them to continue along on their own paths. Fuck simple notions of “empowerment” — these women are already empowered, and Westvind’s meticulous attention to their facial expression, body language, and other physical mannerisms makes it clear as day that it never occurred to any of them to be any other way.

Men, when they appear, are of little to no use — cowering, sweaty, at the mercy of the technologies reducing them to redundancy. This would probably piss of the retrograde troglodytes that make up the “comicsgate” crowd, but who fucking cares — they don’t even know that good (check that, great) books like this exist in the first place. Seriously, objects of utility such as toasters and tea kettles serve a more integral role in this narrative than the guys do. “MRA”s may bitch and moan, but welcome to the other side of the coin, chumps : a story this unapologetically celebratory in its depiction of the achievements of working women is long overdue in the comics medium.

On a purely practical level that even the most dunder-headed reader should be able to appreciate, though, it has to be said that Westvind delineates action like few others are able to — largely because they haven’t even conceived of her singular amalgamation of the fantastic with the visually-relatable. Physical forms disassemble, coalesce, transmogrify, even evolve in ways that are no doubt fantastic (in the truest sense of the word) but at the same time eminently naturalistic and easy to both follow along with and believe in. Add to that terrifically exciting use of the elements (most especially, as  you’ve no doubt already surmised, wind), a cineaste‘s eye for blocking and composition, and a fluid succession of scenes that build upon one another as they move at faster-than-light speed toward a genuinely epic finale, and what you’ve got is best described with a term I just about never resort to due to sheer over-use, but that absolutely applies in this case : a visual marvel.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Grip, though, is the sheer audaciousness of the magnificent switcheroo Westvind pulls off : she never gives you a chance to slow down and think, but by the time it’s all over, you realize her message has sunk in clear as day. If you’re ready to receive that message loud, proud, and clear, then order this one up with all due haste from this — errrrmmm — “handy” link :https://www.perfectly-acceptable.com/item/grip/