How I See “Is This How You See Me?”

It’s time to just come right out and say it : Love And Rockets is the greatest series in comics history. It’s so consistently good, in fact, that it’s often taken for granted, a part of our lives that we just assume will always be there — because, for many of us, it always has been.

That’s why, even though they don’t present anything new per se, I’m always happy when a stand-alone collection of a complete story comes out. Whichever Hernandez brother we’re talking about, Gilbert or Jaime, they produce work that allows for a completely different reading experience when presented alone, or one in conjunction with the other. I know I go through phases where Beto’s stuff seems to be speaking to me more directly, and (more frequently, I confess) phases where Jaime’s comics have that distinction, but I always enjoy the tonal and thematic contrasts that reading them together in “single issues” (a term that applies more strictly now that the big, annual books have given way for a return to quarterly magazines), and the absolute singularity of vision that the collected editions provide for. All of which is my roundabout way of saying that while I thoroughly dug the serialized story presented in Jaime’s latest, Is this How You See Me?, in shorter installments, it wasn’t until Fantagraphics released it in hardcover a few weeks back that I realized what a seamless thing of beauty it is, and that a strong argument could be made for it as his best work ever.

No exaggeration. No hype. No hyperbole.

It’s not just the return of familiar faces we hadn’t seen in far too long, or the old-school Maggie and Hopey chemistry fighting to break through and eventually doing so (okay, not exactly fighting — and not it’s also not exactly the “old-school” chemistry, but we’ll get back to this momentarily) — no, this tale of a punk-rock reunion is much more than a simple exercise in nostalgia, even if roughly half of it takes the form of a flashback to 1979. What we have here is something far more remarkable, a quietly majestic and lyrical contrast between the idealism and naivete of youth versus the wisdom and resignation of middle age that draws out the positives and negatives of both stages in life, rose-colored glasses tossed aside for something very close to 20/20 vision.

I guess Jaime didn’t get the memo that folks his age aren’t supposed to have that anymore?

With their significant others temporarily sidelined, it’s only a matter of time before the familiar relationship dynamic Maggie and Hopey enjoy (or otherwise) makes its way to the fore, but watching them both dance around that inevitability is borderline-sublime, as is the fact that when it does  happen, it’s really not a “same as it ever was” situation at all — in fact, in many small but crucial ways, it’s almost entirely changed.

The “retro” storyline teases out the similarities and differences of the Maggie/Hopey “thing” as it exists today, but without belaboring the obvious — which is the trap too many of these “now and then” stories fall into across all media. Obviously, Jaime’s too skilled a storyteller to go that route, but even those of us who have grown up on his stuff are in for a treat as he puts on an absolute clinic here. You could argue that he’s always gone, as the cliche goes, “from strength to strength,” but close observers (as I fancy myself) are, I think, detecting an “upping of his game” that well and truly kicked in with the story that became known as, and collected under the title of, The Love Bunglers, and that welcome trend accelerates here. Did you really think that you’d ever see a better cartoonist than Jaime Hernandez circa 1990? Meet Jaime Hernandez circa 2019.

Of course the quality of his illustration has as much to do with that as his gift with the written word, and visually, he maintains the same balance that he does narratively, accentuating the familiar but eschewing cheap and easy wistfulness. Like his protagonists, Jaime has learned, over the years, what he’s good at doing, and has developed those parts of his craft that were strong suits to begin with. Faces and bodies that look authentically human, smartly-populated backgrounds and physical environments, an overall ethos that can trace its roots directly back to any number of classic newspaper strips — when you’ve had 37 years to fill your “toolbox,” chances are your facility with all the implements it contains will be fairly high, and so it is here. Controlled lines, rich portrayal of emotion, negative spaces that say a tremendous amount by dint of the things they omit but the eye knows “should” be there — name me five cartoonists with more sheer skill than this guy. Go on, I dare you.

So yeah, I submit that we are in the mist of yet another Love And Rockets “golden age” at present, and the one and only argument I present for that metaphorical “prosecution” is this book. Is This How You See Me? is everything you’ve always loved about Jaime Hernandez, plus plenty you’ve never seen before, or at least haven’t seen like this. Nearly four decades after they were first introduced, we still have so much to learn about Maggie and Hopey. We’re familiar with them, absolutely, but can you honestly say you ever know exactly where things are headed with them next?

Only one man does, obviously, and he hasn’t let us down yet. In Jaime we trust — and always will.

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Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Ongoing Series

The 2018 ” Top 10″ train keeps rolling! This time out : my ten favorite ongoing series of the year. Open-ended or limited runs are fine, as long as the books in question adhere (however tenuously, in some cases) to a production schedule of some sort. Ongoings that release one issue a year (or less) are not eligible in this category, although many such series — like Sean Knickerbocker’s Rust Belt and Anders Nilsen’s Tongues, to name just a couple — were represented in my previously-posted “Top 10 Single Issues” list. And so, with all that out of the way —

10. Exit Stage Left : The Snagglepuss Chronicles By Mark Russell And Mike Feehan (DC) – While never quite reaching the same heights as Russell and Steve Pugh’s The Flintsones, this re-imagining of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon cat as, essentially, Tennessee Williams was still a superb take-down of McCarthyism, and was a topical, poignant, and fun read with obvious parallels to the Trump era. Feehan’s crisp art looks like a million bucks, and the flat-out superb coloring of Paul Mounts makes it look like two million.

9. Abbott By Saladin Ahmed And Sami Kivela (Boom! Studios) – Not since Sugar Hill have blaxploitation and the occult been paired this successfully, and besides featuring the breakout protagonist of the year, this 1970s-set series touched on a boatload of social problems that, you guessed it, still haven’t gone away. Both story and art were pitch-perfect for the material, and my sincere hope is that Ahmed and Kivela will be getting to work on a sequel sometime in the not-too-distant future.

8. Shanghai Red By Christopher Sebela And Joshua Hixson (Image) – A thoroughly engrossing historical fable of crimping, piracy, and gender-bending that flew well below most folks’ collective radar for some reason, this five-parter made damn sure you’ll never look at the history of Portland, Oregon the same way again. Lavishly illustrated and sharply written, this is one you absolutely need to seek out in trade if you took a pass on it in singles.

7. Daygloayhole Quarterly By Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket) – I’ll just come right out and say it : Passmore’s hilarious, absurd, and eminently relevant take on post-apocalyptic “life” probably deserves to be ranked as highly as second or third on this list, but — it’s a reprint series, and therefore I’m skirting my self-imposed ruled by even allowing it “through the door” in the first place. Still, it’s so damn good that I had to find a way to include it, even if it meant fudging things on the margins a bit. If you’re not reading this/haven’t already it, you’re missing out on something well and truly extarordinary. And yes, I use that term with precise intent.

6. Prism Stalker By Sloane Leong (Image) – Feminist sci-fi of the highest order and one of the most visually captivating comics of the year, Leong has created a work for the ages here, as well as a marvel simply to look at. An intoxicatingly beautiful marriage of form and function that defies easy categorization every bit as much as it defied the odds by getting published by one of the “major indie” outfits in the first place, this title knocks you back and leaves you reeling.

5. Black Hammer : Age Of Doom By Jeff Lemire And Dean Ormston (Dark Horse) – The second “season” of the last word in super-hero revisionism may not break new ground in the same way the first did, but even at 75% (roughly) of its initial glory, this is still absorbing, compelling stuff, that both creators are quite clearly pouring all kinds of heart and soul into. And when one of ’em needs a break, who the hell in their right mind is gonna argue about Rich Tommaso filling in on art for a couple of issues?

4. Hey Kids! Comics! By Howard Chaykin (Image) – Leave it to the biggest contrarian in comics to hit us from out of nowhere with his strongest work in decades hot on the heels of the most reviled book of his career. Chaykin pulls no punches and takes no prisoners in this warts-and-all look at comics’ decidedly sleazy ethical history, yet it’s all quite obviously coming from a place of absolute reverence for many of the masters of the medium that it’s taking entirely non-gratuitous “pot-shots” at. New Chaykin regular colorist Wil Quintana does a bang-up job providing stirring hues that make these pages absolutely sing, and goddamn if Ken Bruzenak’s lettering and “effects” still don’t look 20 years ahead of their time. Fuck all the naysayers — at his best, which this surely is, Chaykin still delivers a comics reading experience like no other.

3. Love And Rockets By Gilbert And Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Middle age isn’t something to be endured in the hands of Los Bros., it’s something to be celebrated, and this series’ return to its classic “magazine” format somehow accentuates the point that both brothers are making about “the more things change —.” This book is the reason you love comics. Pray it runs forever.

2. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen : The Tempest By Alan Moore And Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf/Knockabout) – The final comics project (or so we’re told) from both of these legendary creators is both a love letter and middle finger as they head for the exits. The love letter is to the art form itself, while the middle finger is stuck up high, proudly, and entirely justifiably to the industry. A new, all-female iteration of the League is a stroke of genius, as is the decision to up the “humor quotient” considerably after the rather dark turn taken in the last “volume.” How much do we all miss this comic before it’s even over?

1. Now Edited By Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics) – 120-plus pages of the best in contemporary cartooning for ten bucks an issue? How do you beat that? Answer : by infusing the title itself with a distinct sense of purpose that goes beyond such simple and easy anthology premises as specific themes or shared aesthetic sensibilities in favor of selecting work by cartoonists that not only exemplify, but in may ways define where comics is at — errmmm — now. Dash Shaw, Nathan Cowdry, Antoine Cosse, Daria Tessler, Roam Muradov, Al Columbia, Eleanor Davis, Theo Ellsworth — just some of the “murder’s row” of talent to appear in the pages of what is, without question, the quintessential anthology of the decade. Everyone is bringing their “A game” to the party here so far, and the result is my favorite series of the year, as well as the most significant.

And so we reach the end of the second of our six lists! Next up : Top 10 Contemporary Collections, the category devoted to 2018 books that presented material originally serialized as single issues, anthology stories, etc., as well as English-language releases of international material such as Manga, Eurocomics, etc. I’m hoping to have that one ready in the next couple of days here, do stop by and check it out!

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Series

Okay, let’s keep our best-of-2017 theme going here with a look at the Top 10 ongoing series of the year. A quick refresher on the rules : both ongoing and limited series are eligible in this category, as long as they meet a three-issue minimum. The idea here is to rank comics that are chained to a regular(-ish) production schedule, as opposed to those that come out whenever a cartoonist or creative team has the time and/or finances (in the case of self-publishers) to release them. Those books were all eligible (and, frankly, dominated) the “Top 10 Single Issues” list that I cranked out a couple days ago — and, as with that, this one won’t feature full reviews of each series, nor even ones that graduate to the “capsule” review level, just short summations of why I like ’em.

Sound good? I’m happy if you agree, and frankly could care less if you don’t. And so, with my “arrogant asshole” credentials out of the way, let’s get into it:

10. Doom Patrol (DC/Young Animal) – This book has seen numerous production delays, but whenever a new issue comes out, it’s worth it. Yeah, writer Gerard Way leans pretty heavily on Grant Morrison’s DP run for influence, but he’s not slavishly beholden to it, and Nick Derington’s art is equal parts classic and forward-thinking. The closest thing to an “art comic” you’re likely to get from either of the “Big Two” publishers.

9. Royal City (Image) – Jeff Lemire’s moody and slow-burning solo book is a little bit examination of a town that has seen better days, but mainly a compelling family drama about a dysfunctional clan that has definitely seen better days. A touch too mired in ’90s nostalgia for my tastes (news flash, that decade sucked — yes, even most of the music), but damn near pitch-perfect apart from that.

8. Dept. H (Dark Horse) – Matt Kindt’s underwater murder mystery is probably the most compulsively page-turning series going right now, and the watercolor-style hues provided by his wife Sharlene complement the atmosphere perfectly. I dunno how a book with a whole ocean to play in ends up being having such a claustrophobic feel, but damn if the walls don’t seem like they’re closing in on every member of the ensemble cast, all the time.

7. Black Magick (Image) – Writer Greg Rucka and artist extraordinaire Nicola Scott took a break from this one to work on Wonder Woman for awhile, but now they’re not only back, but back with a vengeance. Part police procedural, part Wiccan educational text (for the uninitiated, at any rate), this comic is like nothing else out there, and the rich, cinematic art will absolutely knock your socks off.

6. Mister Miracle (DC) – Yeah, this thing has been over-hyped to the hilt, and won’t seem anywhere near as “revolutionary” as advertised to anyone who’s seen a few David Lynch flicks (particularly Mulholland Drive), but Tom King and Mitch Gerads nevertheless deliver a smarter, more confounding, more complex, and more conceptually spot-on take on a Jack Kirby concept than we’ve seen to date — heck, I daresay The King himself would probably be proud of this one.

5. The Wild Storm (DC/WildStorm) – Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt have done the unthinkable with this series : turned Jim Lee’s gone-and-largely-forgotten relic of ’90s comic book excess into a thought-provoking, Philip K. Dick-esque, paranoid sci-fi political thriller. Crisply scripted, lavishly illustrated, and overflowing with key visual information in every panel, this is borderline-brilliant stuff.

4. Violent Love (Image) – Nobody bought this just-wrapped series and even fewer people are talking about it, but fuck it, that’s their loss. Frank J. Barbiere’s Badlands/Natural Born Killers/Bonnie And Clyde -style “criminals on the road” script is as fast and furious as they come, and Victor Santos’ art is the most stylish thing going in any “major independent” book, brimming over with ’70s exploitation grit and film noir cool.

3. The Flintstones (DC) – Truth be told, all of DC’s licensed Hanna-Barbera comics have been far better than any rational reader had probably assumed they would be, but this recently-concluded revisionist take on life in Bedrock from writer Mark Russell and criminally-underappreciated veteran artist Steve Pugh is clearly the best of the bunch — and, obviously, one of the best comics of the year. Spot-on social and political commentary that spares no sacred cows matched with wit and whimsy that’s downright charming, this wasn’t so much a Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty “re-launch” as it was a thematic and spiritual successor to Howie Post’s legendary Anthro. Utterly sublime, and hopefully a second “season” will be in the offing sooner rather than later.

2. Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics) – Los Bros. Hernandez have brought their series back to its original magazine format, and whenever a new issue hits the racks, all is temporarily right with the world again. Beto’s stuff is arguably at its most deeply self-referential right now, but rest assured it’s still great, and Jaime’s strips are aging so gracefully it’s almost painful to take in — seriously, Maggie, Hopey and co. are even more compelling at mid-life than they were in their twenties. By all rights this comic should have devolved into nostalgia and stagnation by now, but not only has that not happened, there are no signs that it ever will. Who are we kidding? This is one of the greatest comics not only of the year, but of all time. Always has been, always will be.

1. Black Hammer (Dark Horse) – Just when you thought super-hero revisionism was finally dead and buried, along comes Jeff Lemire and a majestically resurgent Dean Ormston (who had to re-train himself to draw after suffering a stroke) to show that you can move the most tired sub-genre of the most tired genre in the medium forward while writing a love letter to its past at the same time. This book consistently hits every note that long-time comics readers could possibly ask for, and somehow does so without a hint of either cynicism or irony. Capes and tights haven’t been done this sincerely since Alan Moore’s run on Supreme, and who knows? By the time all is said and done, this just might — I say again, might — prove to be almost as good.

Like my list? Hate it? Somewhere in between? Let me know! Certainly I had to leave a few solid contenders off, but as with the single issues, I’m really comfortable with my rankings — in fact, I had no hesitation about any of them, nor where they should fall. It all came almost disturbingly easy. Which, in theory, means I’m probably missing something really obvious — but I don’t think so.

Up next : the Top 10 Collected Editions (Contemporary) list, which will rank the best books presenting material from the beginning of the so-called “Modern Age” right up to the present day. TPB collections, comic strip collections, anthologies, webcomics collections, and the like are all eligible in this category, as long as their contents appeared somewhere else, either physically or digitally, first. I’ll hope to see you back here in a handful of days for that one!