Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

It’s that time of the year — specifically, the end of it. Or near enough, at any rate, for my purposes — those “purposes” being to survey the comics landscape and pick my favorites from 2019’s slate of offerings. As per the norm, I’ll be dividing things up into a veritable boat-load of different categories — top ten single issues (stand-alone comics, or ongoing projects that saw only one installment published in the last calendar year), top ten ongoing series (any comic series or “limited” series that saw two or more issues come out in 2019), top ten vintage collections (books presenting material originally published prior to the year 2000), top ten contemporary collections (books presenting material originally published after the year 2000), top ten special mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books about comics, art books, prose and/or visual works by cartoonists that aren’t exactly “comics” per se, etc.), and top ten original graphic novels (long-form original works never serialized in single issues) — and again, as per usual, we’ll kick things off with the top ten single issues list, with the others following in the coming days. Now, let’s stop dawdling and get down to business, shall we?

10. Kids With Guns #1 By Alex Nall (Self-Published) – The opening salvo of Nall’s first-ever ongoing serial instantly captured my attention with its strong characterization, sublime grasp on inter-generational relations, and oblique-but-effective social commentary, all rendered in his signature updated take on traditional “Sunday Funnies” cartooning. This project could go in any number of fascinating directions, and may or may not be about what its title implies. I’m looking forward to finding out.

9. Expelling My Truth By Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books) – Nobody employs exaggeration and absurdity to tell the “truth” about both modern life and themselves quite like Van Deusen, and in his latest, his trademark satirical wit has never been sharper while his line art has never been smoother. Always a study in contrasts, this guy, but he’s found an inimitable way to make his work’s deliberate and inherent contradictions become its raison d’etre.

8. Rodeo #1 By Evan Salazar (Self-Published) – Debuts don’t come much stronger than this one, as Salazar immediately establishes himself as a cartoonist with a unique perspective and a natural gift for storytelling, his tale of a temporary family break-up as seen through a particularly precocious child’s eyes revealing much more about what’s happening than a straight re-telling of the “facts” of the situation ever could. Emotionally and intellectually arresting in equal measure, and drawn in a confident, non-flashy style, this is one of the best single-creator anthology titles to come down the pipeline in many a year.

7. Stunt By Michael DeForge (Koyama Press) – I struggled with which category to put this one in, but eventually settled on single issues simply because it’s formatted like a Jack T. Chick tract even if it’s priced like a book — it’s also, in true DeForge fashion, imbued with a hell of a lot more philosophical depth than its page count would lead you to believe. A rumination on identity and its voluntary, even necessary, abandonment filtered through his usual lens of homoeroticism and gooey body horror, this short-form offering ranks right up there with the cartoonist’s most confidently-realized works.

6. Nabokova By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – It was such a strong and prolific year for Oshima that choosing a favorite among her works was tough, but in point of fact this is the one where she really “puts it all together” and delivers a treatise on alienation, self-absorption and the fine line between the two that’s every bit as dense as the Russian literature its title invokes — but it won’t, fortunately, take you all winter to to read it. Spellbinding stuff that will leave your head spinning with questions.

5. Castle Of The Beast By Ariel Cooper (Self-Published) – Fear of intimacy has never been delineated as beautifully or as sympathetically as it is in Cooper’s lush, breathtaking visual tone-poem that masterfully blends the concrete and the abstract into a comics experience quite unlike any other. Within a couple of years, this will be the cartoonist everyone is talking about

4. Tulpa By Grace Kroll (Self-Published) – It’s astonishing to see anyone bare their soul and their struggles as frankly as Kroll does in this, her first ever comic, but do so in a manner that brings forth genuine understanding rather than simply playing for sympathy? There are cartoonists that spend their whole careers struggling with what she achieves on her very first go-’round, and her singular art style is as smart as it is innovative.

3. For Real By James Romberger (Uncivilized Books) – The only thing more heroic than Jack Kirby’s characters was the man himself, and in this heartfelt tribute, master artist Romberger relates two harrowing life-and-death challenges The King faced in a manner than honors his style yet is in no way beholden to it. Another unforgettable comics experience by a cartoonist who never produces anything less.

2. Malarkey #4 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Long the champion of neurotic self-deprecation, by tracing the roots of both to her Catholic upbringing, Garcia ups the stakes — and the results — considerably and establishes herself as precisely what previous issues of this comic hinted she might become : the best autobio cartoonist in the business. And maybe even the heir apparent to the great Justin Green? In any case, her moment has well and truly arrived. Now, will somebody get busy collecting all her stuff into a book, please?

1. Tad Martin #7 By Casanova Frankenstein (Domino Books)  – I could say that seeing Frankenstein and his nominally stand-in protagonist matched up with the production values they so richly deserve is a “dream come true,” but this gorgeous, full-color, oversized comic is actually a nightmare come to life — and harrowing, soul-searing life at that. Always an exercise in re-invention, this issue of Tad combines elements of all the previous entries in this sporadic series into a comprehensive vision of nihilism as the only thing worth living for. Other cartoonists will have to fight for a place edging toward the middle — the margins of the medium are already spoken for.

And so we’re off to the races with “Top Ten” week. I’ll be tackling the best ongoing series next, but in the meantime do consider supporting my ongoing work by subscribing to 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. Please do yourself — and, who are we kidding, me — a favor by checking it out at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

You Need This Comic, “For Real”

If there’s one cartoonist that learned scholars of the comics medium — and even the occasional opinionated asshole such as yours truly — wishes we could see more work from, it’s James Romberger. His understanding of the unique potential and possibilities inherent to sequential storytelling is on par with the likes of Mazzuchelli or Krigstein, yet when pressed, most of my fellow critics will cop to being familiar with his stunning graphic adaptation of David Wojnarowicz’s Seven Miles A Second, and that’s about it.

Which isn’t a bad thing to be known for by any means — quite the reverse — but for whatever reason, subsequent and occasional works such as Post York and Aaron And Ahmed didn’t rock the comics community to its collective core in the same fashion. Which is a damn shame, because they’re both outstanding books that deserve to be just as widely known, studied, and discussed — but they simply haven’t garnered the requisite level of attention to generate much by way of any of that. My earnest hope, however, is that his latest Uncivilized Books-published comic, For Real, will change all that.

Not that Romberger need necessarily sweat it — his stature in the fine art world and the world of art studies, particularly comics studies, is beyond secure and established, and it’s his forays into said sphere of academia that have, at least in part, given birth to this latest project. And I can say that with a fair degree of certainty because as anyone who’s had the privilege of corresponding with James over the years can tell you, if there’s one thing this guy knows, and perhaps even more crucially one thing he gets, it’s Jack Kirby comics. The mechanics, the dynamics, the motivations, the ethos of Kirby are part and parcel of his own artistic DNA at this point, and I dare say that I consider him to be the one person out there who is an even more vocal and ardent preacher of the gospel that is The King’s Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers than I am myself. So, yeah, he knows even the more obscure corners and side-streets of the Kirby cosmology, but with For Real he shows that he has an even deeper understanding of Kirby the man than he does of Kirby the artist.

And considering few Kirby scholars know the artist better, that’s really saying something.

The comics story that makes up the bulk of this publication, entitled “The Oven,” shows Kirby at war — with the Nazis early in life and with cancer later — and is as expertly delineated as one would expect from this particular auteur, a heady mix of fluid, naturalistic linework, visionary use of people and objects in space, emotive facial and body language, and brisk sequential pacing. And yet for all that, it’s the sparsely eloquent scripting that touches the rawest of nerves, hitting on subjects ranging from PTSD to the creative process to the importance of family to finding inspiration under the most trying of circumstances, all explored in a manner that honors each of them while belaboring none. Romberger has a multi-faceted central thesis animating all of this, it’s true, but it’s one he lets his narrative make the case for, rather than forcing said narrative to fit around it — and that makes all the difference in the world. This isn’t merely “effective” cartooning, it’s smartly effective cartooning, and much of that efficacy registers as much on an emotional level as it does an intellectual one.

Necessary contextualization is gleaned from the superb backup essay, “The Real Thing,” which drives home the factual underpinning for the opinion that its subject (again, Kirby, as if you hadn’t already sussed it out) was — and remains — precisely that, but do be prepared to go back to page one of the comic after you’ve read it and re-experience the creative output that resulted from the study and erudition that went into the text piece. Taken together, the two form a seamless and cohesive whole, and make for one of the most memorable reads of the entire year.

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For Real is available for $5.00 directly from the publisher at https://uncivilizedbooks.com/for-real-1-by-james-romberger/

Also, please consider supporting my own ongoing work by subscribing to 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. The link for that is https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

A True Innovator Gets His Due In “Steranko : The Self-Created Man”

Who better than a multi-talented, groundbreaking, artistic visionary to provide the definitive analysis of — a multi-talented, groundbreaking, artistic visionary?

The answer is as obvious as the question itself, I suppose, and it’s for that reason that James Romberger’s just-released (by means of his own Ground Zero Books self-publishing imprint) Steranko : The Self-Created Man stands out immediately as the authoritative work on the art and legacy of its subject — the iconoclastic, in many respects enigmatic, Jim Steranko : carny escape artist, comics innovator, cinematic conceptualizer, frankly peerless genre-novel cover artist, trailblazing publisher, and raconteur par excellence.

Not that every aspect of the man whose own “real-life” exploits formed the basis of Jack Kirby’s legendary Mister Miracle character comes in for equal treatment in this slim, easily-digestible volume, mind you : this is a book makes no pretenses toward being an absolutely comprehensive biography, nor would such an endeavor play to its author’s strengths : Romberger is, after all, in addition to being a deliriously accomplished fine artist, comics illustrator, and teacher (currently splitting his time in academia between Parsons in New York and Marywood University in Pennsylvania), an art scholar of the highest order, and hones his finely-tuned analytical skills on Steranko’s justly-legendary body of work first and foremost. It’s a wise decision, the end result being 160-ish thoroughly readable pages overflowing with earned, but crucially never haughty and always accessible, erudition.

An introductory sketch of Steranko’s life that does contain plenty of biographical information kicks off the proceedings, but the metaphorical “main course” comes by way of a wide-ranging interview with the artist wherein he catalogues, and expounds upon, the no less than 144 graphic storytelling innovations he introduced to the comics medium between the years of 1966 and 1984, most notably during his celebrated run on Marvel’s Nick Fury, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and an impressive critical appraisal by Romberger of Steranko’s concept art for filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Alain Resnais. This is highly academic stuff by its very nature, to be sure, but no less engrossing for that fact — hell, truth be told, I defy anyone to read through it all and not immediately wish to track down more examples of the work in question than are re-produced herein. Romberger has a way, you see, of making you both understand and appreciate the art that he’s so painstakingly breaking down, at every angle and from just as many perspectives, and meticulously placing it all within not only a historical continuum, but the larger social, political, and even philosophical zeitgeist — much of which Steranko’s art not only informed, but flat-out formed in its wake. In other words, they didn’t call this guy “The Jimi Hendrix Of Comics” for nothin’, and Romberger aptly demonstrates precisely why that’s the case.

Perhaps most impressively, though, is that this book, while obviously respectful and considered throughout, never devolves into mere hagiography, and instead recognizes Steranko and his innovations as arising not from some magical and unknowable font of mystic power, but from the artist’s own unique set of experiences and an eminently practical series of responses to various challenges that specific endeavors presented to him — and it’s in this intuitive understanding of the delicate balance that always exists between inspiration and its practical application that Romberger stands apart from, and frankly above, his “fellow travelers” in the field of art scholarship. This is specialized knowledge of the highest order communicated in such a fashion that I honestly feel it will resonate with just about anyone.

I am very pleased, therefore, to give Steranko : The Self-Created Man a rare unqualified recommendation to those interested in art history, and comics history in particular. It is a volume that I am confident will stand the test of time every bit as much the body of work it considers has. Purchase your copy directly from James Romberger at https://groundzerobooks.com/products/steranko-the-self-created-man?fbclid=IwAR3CruBN2yGWRHrhKZNDyrRcIGufAJbdGyaFTG_nMaI57VvUST85RY2xeaQ

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 10/14/2018 – 10/20/2018

As per the norm, we’ve got four new books to take a look at in this week’s Round-Up column, with something of a common theme in that they all come our way courtesy  of those unafraid to put their money where their mouths are, the noble ranks of self-publishing cartoonists —

Or, in the case of So Buttons #9, a self-publishing writer, specifically Jonathan Baylis, who makes a welcome return after a couple of years spent raising his infant son, who features prominently in a heartwarming little “who do ya love?” anecdote illustrated with stripped-down poignancy by T.J. Kirsch and an equally “awwwww — fer cute”-inducing yarn about introducing the lovable tyke to music drawn with gorgeously wistful aplomb by Summer Pierre. For the anti-natalists out there, though, fear not : we have a quartet of stories that re-visit tried and true Baylis themes, with the great James Romberger providing the strikingly authentic urban visuals which have long been one of the staples of his career on a story about picking up real rare roast beef from New York’s famous Second Avenue Deli, Fred Hembeck continuing his whimsical depictions of Baylis’ time interning in the shitshow that is the mainstream comic book industry, Thomas Boatwright going full-on “cartoony” exaggeration in a second strip about Baylis’ abandoned ambitions to be a horror movie make-up and effects artist, and Noah Van Sciver channeling his inner Crumb for another Harvey Pekar homage, which sees Baylis asking his own version of “what’s in a name?” —  only the name he’s pondering the ins and outs of isn’t Jonathan, as you’d probably expect, but Carl, which was shared by both his father and cousin.

These are all eminently smart and readable short-form vignettes that demonstrate that Baylis hasn’t lost a step at all over his hiatus, and if this issue happens to be your first exposure to his work, rest assured — you couldn’t have chosen a better time to hop on board. Presented in approximate half-standard-size format with a stunningly simple and emotive watercolor cover by Alissa Salah, this comic is more than worth the $5 price of admission and is available for purchase at http://sobuttons.com/order/

Continuing with the memoir theme, Rachel Scheer and her mother, Karen, collaborate once again for By Mom, By Me Volume Two : Tales From Our Twenties, which juxtaposes the “coming of age” years of Karen in the 1970s and Rachel in the early 2000s. This is remarkably relatable stuff, whether we’re talking about hitching a ride in a hearse through Yosemite Valley or an amusingly paranoid (you only think that’s a contradiction) boardwalk stroll, and ably demonstrates that this family has talent to spare. Rachel’s engaging, light-hearted cartooning style is as pitch-perfect for her material as ever here, the simple black-and-white ‘zine presentation is really nice, and I defy anybody to finish this one without a smile slowly creeping across their face.

Granted, this is no reinvention of the wheel or anything, but it’s a novel and winning approach to something that many consider, and not without reason, to have already been, as the saying goes, “done to death.” A bargain at $4.00 from https://www.etsy.com/listing/631943490/by-mom-by-me-volume-two-tales-from-our?ref=shop_home_active_1

Breaking from the memoir/autobio theme we had going, but only slightly, we come to Josh Pettinger’s Goiter #3, a book-length tale about one Sally Talman, who shares many of the same trepidations about turning 30 that, just a coincidence I’m sure, her author/creator did, as well. I’m thinking that the similarities between fact and fiction end, though, once the disembodied head of Sally’s future boyfriend, who’s fighting an interdimensional war, shows up on the scene, although who knows? I could be wrong about that.

Whatever the case may be, Pettinger’s rapid evolution as a cartoonist continues apace here, as he abandons the clinical Chris Ware-like distance he sometimes fell back on in earlier issues in favor of a genuinely involving story with a thoroughly humane viewpoint at its softly-beating heart. His illustration style still betrays hints of a Dan Clowes influence, it’s true, but with a decidedly “vintage” sensibility (be on the lookout for lots of “color dots,” for instance) that gives the proceedings a timeless and ethereal vibe. A richly rewarding return on your $7 investment (not bad at all for a full-color book in a slightly taller and thinner version of the standard comic format, with heavy cardstock covers) is sure to be had if you do the right thing and point your browser to https://www.etsy.com/listing/650388073/goiter-iii?ref=shop_home_active_1

Saving the best for last, though, we have Sara L. Jackson’s stunning painted ‘zine, The Female Minotaur, an emotionally searing look at the slow-burn heartbreak of a father’s gradual distancing of himself from his own daughter — a blow that’s doubly felt given the alienation that she already feels from her mother, and that mom in turn feels from dad. Oh yeah — this is as heavy as comics get.

Tell you what, though — it’s just about as good as they get, too, a veritable and visceral feast for the eyes that challenges the reader on all levels from the intellectual to the aesthetic, the end result being a book that literally exists in a category all its own, created for the specific purpose of telling this one story. I tend to shy away from employing overused and, by extension, necessarily cheapened superlatives such as “tour de force” very often, but that’s exactly what Jackson delivers here, a thematic and conceptual powerhouse of raw feeling more-than-strikingly communicated by means of her intuitively-channeled sequential series of  lush and arresting paintings. This is art that comes from someplace really deep, folks, and speaks to equally deep pits and valleys in the reader’s soul. A strong contender for the most unforgettable comics experience you’ll have all year, and not to be missed under any circumstances, exclusively (as far as I know, at any rate) offered for sale — and at the criminally low price of $8 ! — from our friends at Domino Books : http://dominobooks.org/womanminotaur.html

And with that, we  come to the end of yet another of our weekly “mini-review” rundowns. I don’t know what next week holds, but if it’s even half as good as this one, that would still be something well beyond great.

 

“Flayed Corpse And Other Stories” : Josh Simmons Sits At The Center of A Brutal, Random, Uncaring Universe — Is That A Bad Thing?

In most fields of entertainment and/or artistic expression (the two only seem mutually exclusive, they needn’t necessarily be), there is usually at least one generally-acknowledged “Master of Horror,” if not several : literature has Stephen King; cinema has John Carpenter remaining out of the one-time Carpenter/Craven/Romero “trinity,” with plenty of others ready and waiting to assume up the mantle;  television has Robert Kirkman (hey, I didn’t say I liked all these folks); mainstream comics still clings to the acclaimed works of “British Invaders” Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Jamie Delano, as well as to the legendary EC and Warren creators. Purportedly “alternative” or “independent” comics, though? Not so much.

Certainly the first wave of underground comix saw plenty of cartoonists who were very much at home delineating the horrific : Greg Irons, Jack Jackson, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson and all produced memorable horror-themed works — heck, even a young Richard Corben cut his teeth in the underground milieu. These days, though, folks pursuing a non-corporate path for their comics careers tend toward the autobiographical, the surreal, the “slice-of-life,” the dramatic, the melodramatic. Horror seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor among the “indie” set.

Which is why Josh Simmons is such a breath of fresh — if fetid and diseased — air. Whether we’re talking about his shorter works collected in books such as The Furry Trap, or long-form graphic novels like Black River, this is a guy who makes his bread and butter holding a brutally scrambled — and just as brutally honest — funhouse mirror up to society and forcing us to acknowledge any number of things we’d much rather ignore, and his latest Fantagraphics-published collection, Flayed Corpse And Other Stories, sees him back on familiar ground and twisting the knife in deeper.

Simmons is often mistakenly lumped in with the “dudebro” crowd of white male cartoonists that think subtracting all meaning from their work automatically makes it “edgy” and gives them license to “up the ante” (Jason Karns, I’m looking at you — and Charles Forsman, I’m looking at you sometimes), but what I think the largely-well-meaning critics who take exception to this (as, usually, they should) miss is that there are ways to make pointlessness a point in and of itself, and that it takes genuine skill to effectively imbue your work with a sense of dread at the realization that the world is going to go on spinning no matter what the hell happens to any of us individually. That’s what Simmons does, and he does it without apology, pity, or a minute’s hand-holding.

His intro strip to this volume, pictured above, subverts the contents of everything that follows for those of us who know what to expect, saves its sardonic punchline if you’re a newbie, but undoubtedly works like a charm (an unlucky one, perhaps, but still) either way and very nearly manages to momentarily redeem the concept of irony until you remember that, oh yeah, most people shouldn’t even try this shit, but Simmons does it well enough to earn a pass. It’s really the first (and titular) strip presented after the table of contents, then, that sets the “legit” tone for the next one-hundred-sixty-some pages, as medical examiners debate how an unfortunate corpse came to be in their “care,” each one-upping the other with increasingly grotesque hypotheses as to cause of death before settling on all of them, and that the victim therefore met his end in a state of extreme agony — an agony that will likely endure forever because, I guess, that’s how metaphysics works. Welcome to a highly personal apocalypse that never ends.

Bizarrely, though, Simmons and his coterie of collaborators — writer/artist Tom Van Deusen, inker Eric Reynolds, artists Patrick Keck, Ben Horak, James Romberger, Pat Moriarty, Eroyn Franklin, Ross Jackson, and Joe Garber (with additional stand-alone art pages by Tara Booth, Anders Nilsen, and Shanna Matuszak) — find the funny side in the midst of this bleakness. The humor on offer is of the unsettling — hell, the gallows — variety, to be sure, but sometimes a shameful laugh in spite of yourself is better than no laugh at all.

In that sense, then, this assemblage of stories — most culled from various anthologies published between the years 2010-2017, although some were self-contained “floppy” single-issue releases — probably owes more to the ethos and aesthetic of the drive-ins and grindhouses of the ’70s than it does to what’s happening in contemporary horror, given that anything can happen at any time and no one is safe. Joe Bob Briggs would probably approve — as do I — but folks who grew up on horror with implicit, if never directly-stated, rules ? The readers who know the “loose” girls die first, the virgins survive until the end, the killer gets up and walks again no matter how violently he’s been dispatched? They might be genuinely surprised by the kind of “no hope for anyone, ever, so don’t fucking kid yourself” existential terror that is Simmons’ stock in trade.

I really don’t want to give the impression that this book has a sense of relentlessness to it, though — and while much of that is down to the aforementioned bleak humor, a lot of it is down to the varying, but uniformly pitch-perfect, art styles on display. Simmons’ own cartooning is plenty strong in its own right — rich and inky blacks juxtaposed with economic, effective, and moody linework that gives off a feel of “what if Chester Brown swapped out his clinical detachment for informed cynicism?” and finds its apex in the collection’s two finest stories (“The Incident At Owl’s Head,” a revisionist take on outsider-wanders-into-an-isolated-community tropes, and “Seaside Home,” a harrowingly straightforward character study of a family facing unavoidable, inescapable natural disaster) — but he shows a real penchant for playing to his artists’ strengths when he sets the pencils and brushes aside himself.

Of the collaborative entries, the strongest is no doubt “Twilight Of The Bat,” the justly-celebrated story that draws the one and only logical conclusion  to the let’s- not-call-him-Batman and let’s-also-not-call-him-Joker relationship (something of a surprise entry given that the original, riso-printed magazine came out in the latter part of 2017 and is still available from its publisher, Cold Cube Press), drawn with suitable post-apocalyptic grit by Patrick Keck, while the best example of two heads being better than one is probably “Daddy,” a stark and particularly unforgiving tale of the “oh my God the killer was already in our home” variety that transcends its telegraphed-from-the-outset trajectory thanks to James Romberger’s violently evocative art that marries old-school EC eeriness with a thoroughly modern sensibility, all awash with rich and vibrant and frankly disturbing colors. It’s gorgeous to look at, yeah, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell.

Still, while the gory and the gross are  present and accounted for here in generous proportion (see especially the Pat Moriarty-illustrated “The Great Shitter”), it is the philosophy underpinning Simmons’ stories that sets them apart and above. Not even the light-hearted (relatively speaking, mind  you) Tom Van Deusen-penned yarn, “Late For The Show,” can completely escape the inexorable vortex pull of inevitability at the core Flayed Corpse And Other Stories. When your number is up, it’s up, Simmons never tires of reminding us — but before it comes up (and I hope, for your sake, that’s not for a good, long while yet), I absolutely urge you to buy this book.