Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

Next in our year-end lists we come to TOP TEN SPECIAL MENTIONS, a “grab-bag” category I came up with a few years back to encompass everything adjacent to comics that isn’t comics “proper” per se — so in short we’re talking about art books; ‘zines, books, and scholarly works about comics and/or cartoonists; non-comics projects by people who usually do comics; and, perhaps most nebulously, sequentially-illustrated narrative works that don’t quite fit the standard operating definition of comics in that they don’t contain word balloons, thought bubbles, or in-panel caption boxes. Read on and all will, hopefully, become clear :

10. Bubbles, Edited By Brian Baynes (Bubbles Publications) – Baynes’ “independent fanzine about comics and manga” had another strong year, and if there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate about this publication above all else it’s the unabashedly fannish tone the editor and writers bring to the table. There’s not an ounce of cynicism to be found in these pages — everyone who contributes to this ‘zine literally loves the medium, and it shows.

9. Please, God – Help Me Be Normal! By John Trubee (Mucus House) – A long-overdue comprehensive collection of Trubee’s “Ugly Men” drawings, plus other miscellany, that not only doesn’t disappoint but might even exceed expectations. A gallery of grotesqueries for the ages that is a required item on the coffee tables of all who read this blog.

8. Queen City By Karl Christian Krumpholz (Tinto Press) – A unique narrative and visual history of Denver by the cartoonist who knows it best, as well as a heartfelt lament for the its pre-gentrification glory days. this feels very much like the work Krumpholz has been building toward his entire career. Gorgeously illustrated, evocatively written, and altogether engrossing.

7. Strangers, Edited By Eddie Raymond (Strangers Fanzine) – The old-school print ‘zine that specializes in old-school content branched out a bit in conceptual terms this year, covering more new stuff and featuring tons of original comics by a “murderer’s row” of talented cartoonists. Every time a new issue comes in the mail I devour it from cover to cover, and it always leaves a big, shit-eating grin on my face.

6. Discipline By Dash Shaw (New York Review Comics) – Sure to be a fixture on many a “best comics of 2021” list, Shaw’s meditation on the Civil War, the limits of pacifism, and the human toll of conflicts inner and outer fits the SPECIAL MENTIONS category here in that it is a series of illustrations derived and adapted from letters written at the time. Innovative, exquisitely drawn, and instantly memorable, this is a powerful and poignant work from a contemporary master fully in command of all his storytelling gifts.

5. Francis Bacon By E. A. Bethea (Domino Books) – You can expect to find this on any number of “best-of” list as well — this one included, obviously — but again, due to the absolutely unique nature of Bethea’s work, I’m more comfortable categorizing it as “narrative sequential art.” Deeply personal, evocative, and as always using its subject as springboard to a long-form reverie that unfolds like a vividly-remembered dream, this is, in my humble estimation, Bethea’s most fully-realized and emotionally resonant ‘zine to date.
4. According To Jack Kirby By Michael Hill (Self-Published Via Lulu) – The necessary historical corrective we’ve all been waiting decades for is here, as Hill meticulously combs through thousands of “on-the-record” quotations and statements to present a persuasive and comprehensive case for Kirby as the pre-eminent creative genius in mainstream comics history as well as the sole creator of most of the so-called “Marvel Universe.” An exhaustive forensic examination of the facts written in an engaging, page-turning style that might even make the most hardened of Stan Lee partisans think twice about all the bullshit their guy spewed to line his own pockets and enrich his corporate paymasters at the expense of an undisputed — and still under-appreciated — true artistic visionary.

3. Mysterious Travelers : Steve Ditko And The Search For A New Liberal Identity By Zack Kruse (University Press Of Mississippi) – Without question the finest work of Ditko scholarship ever committed to print, Kruse re-contextualizes the iconoclastic creator’s singular body of work within a more expansive framework that gives new insights into the motivations behind, and philosophy of, one of comics’ most uncompromising auteurs. More than a historical re-analysis, this is a meticulously-researched and eye-opening critical appraisal of some of the most important work in the history of the medium that has only been partially understood by far too many who have laid unearned claims of expertise on it in the past.

2. A Cockeyed Menagerie : The Drawings Of T.S. Sullivant, Edited By Conrad Groth (Fantagraphics) – Years in the making, and clocking in at well over 400 pages, this utterly sublime monograph covers every phase of Sullivant’s groundbreaking career from the 1880s up to the 1920s, and to say no stone has gone unturned and no expense has been spared in its preparation and presentation is an understatement of criminal proportions. This is the prestige release of the year, perhaps of the last several years, and balances historical essays, critical appreciations, and painstakingly-restored artwork to give a full and complete picture of a true artistic trailblazer. Lose yourself in this one and you may find you never want to come out of it.

1. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden By Mannie Murphy (Fantagraphics) – A lyrical melding of the personal, political, social, and historical into one gorgeously expressive and darkly harrowing journey through both the streets of Portland and Murphy’s own life, this is bold and revelatory work that stands with the best art created in any medium this year. A love letter to an idealized vision of a city that never was, a requiem for a dream that nobody even tried to realize, a righteous call to action for a future that is hopefully still worth fighting for — this is a modern masterpiece in every respect that elicited a reaction I wasn’t even sure I was capable of anymore after so many years in the critical trenches : awe.

And with that, I’m taking a short holiday break. The end-of-year recaps will resume next week with my picks for TOP TEN VINTAGE COLLECTIONS, TOP TEN CONTEMPORARY COLLECTIONS, and TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS. Hope to see you then — in the meantime, should you want more of my content for whatever reason, including a couple of posts on my thought processes as I was cobbling these lists together, I humbly remind you that I have a Patreon that I update three times per week and that you can join for as little as a buck a month. Here’s the link :

“Please, God – Help Me Be Normal!” Will Make You Glad John Trubee Is Anything But

A lot of great art, regardless of medium, comes from a place of deep personal anguish. It only stands to reason, of course — profoundly disturbing imagery, writing, films, etc. are most authentically communicated by profoundly disturbed minds. But does that mean the artist in question can’t be having a good time making it, and that you as a reader or viewer can’t have fun experiencing it?

I ask this because, as the contents of the long-overdue career retrospective Please, God – Help Me Be Normal! (Mucus House Publications, 2021) make abundantly clear, something is up with John Trubee. the very title of his book is a cry for help, and it’s tough to blame the guy for having a constant urge to scream into the abyss. I mean, he sees things in a way that most of us simply don’t — hell, maybe he just sees things that most of simply don’t, period — but here’s where things get interesting : his art, while rendered with downright maniacal intensity, nevertheless exudes a kind of irreverence that in a push might be called tongue-in-cheek. The only thing is, of course, some of these freaks and geeks that he likes to draw probably have three or four tongues, maybe even more.

Which isn’t to say that his so-called “ugly men” drawings don’t both depict and speak to (or should that be for?) the — well, the ugly side of the collectivized human subconscious. Specifically, the male human subconscious. Many of the rant-style captions that accompany these deliriously grotesque de facto portraits are every bit as fucked up as the mutated monstrosities they depict, reveling in misanthropy, misogyny, licentiousness, and nihilism. Think of some bastard offspring of Rory Hayes and the most “black-pilled” adherents of “incel” subculture and you won’t be too far off the mark. And yet this stuff is so uniformly over the top and beyond the pale that if Trubee were to dial down its full frontal assault on both your visual cortex and your conscience it would ring false, hollow — even chickenshit. Trubee doesn’t “ramp things up to 11,” as the saying goes, he starts off there and pretty much dares you to keep up.

Which leads the rational, reasonable person to conclude that this stuff is in no way, shape, or form going to be universally appealing. And it’s likely to be those same “rational, reasonable” people who take greatest exception to the going-on in these pages. Fair enough. But this is no mere exercise in regurgitating the flotsam and jetsam of Trubee’s id, much less some droll display of “shock value” imagery with no intent behind it other than to raise the hackles of squares. I hesitate to pin Trubee down to having anything so pedestrian as an agenda, but his inherently confrontational artistic philosophy ensures that his work fits comfortably along a continuum of latter-day aesthetic terrorists ranging from Jim Osborne to Joe Coleman to S. Clay Wilson to Tom Crites to Mike Diana to Trevor Brown to the aforementioned Mr. Hayes. And yet —

At the risk of repeating myself (whoops, too late), this shit is so far off on its own wavelength that it’s often hard to tell how seriously Trubee himself is taking it all. Certainly he’s dead serious about his craft — the amount of time that goes into his cross-hatching alone would break the resolve of many an artist — but beyond that he never makes it clear whether or not he’s actively promulgating for, or just engaging in an extended “piss-take” on, what’s generally referred to as the “dudebro” mindset. Hell, he could very well be doing both, but what makes this volume (which functions as a “best-of” or “greatest hits” compendium going back decades) such a conceptually challenging one is that he never reveals the cards he’s holding in too obvious a fashion — nor, frankly, should he. If there’s one kind of art I hope we’re all bored to death with, it’s art that tells you what to think of as a precursor for telling you how to think in a more general, all-encompassing sense. Trubee lets his work speak for itself and leaves any tonal interpretation up to each individual reader/viewer to limn out for themselves.

Well, sort of. Truth be told, the essay by Trubee himself and the interview with the artist conducted by Barry Alfonso rather give the game away in certain respects, so while they’re enthralling reads that come highly recommended, it might behoove you to save ’em for after you’ve made your way through the drawings, simply because I think the impact of these images is, in my estimation at any rate, that much more acute if viewed through a lens of ambiguous amorality. The mere fact that Trubee’s been at this for as long as he has is a statement of intent by default in and of itself, it’s true, but it’s worth remembering that even the most profoundly cynical person is capable of communicating their outlook with a wink and a nod toward its (and, by extension, their) own absurdity. All I can say safely say with absolute certainty — and without tipping the scales much in either direction — is that what we’ve got here are a bunch of fucking insane illustrations of “party monster” types, with equal emphasis on both the party and the monster. I dug it — hell, I dug it a lot — but then, I always kinda wondered what would happen if the Garbage Pail Kids grew up, ingested a shit-ton of PCP, and started listening to Joe Rogan.


Please, God – Help Me Be Normal! is available for $24.95 from (try to quell your surprise here) Jim Blanchard’s Bigcartel site at

Also, I’ve done a piss-poor job of promoting my Patreon lately, but don’t take that to mean my content on there hasn’t been damn good, even if I do say so myself. If you’re looking for three more servings of my cultural and pop cultural musings every week, this is the place to go is