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

 

Armed — And Dangerous? Alex Nall’s “Kids With Guns” #1

Ostensibly the story of a friendship between 10-year-old Milo and his 80-year-old neighbor, Mel, the first issue of Alex Nall’s apparently-ongoing new self-published minicomics series, Kids With Guns, clearly aims to touch on much more, and goes about its business quickly but in a manner that’s no way forced — its title is as combustible as it is topical, and its interior contents are tailor-made to match. Where it’s all going is, at this early stage, an open question — but whether or not you’re going to want to follow Nall and his characters there? That’s a lead-pipe cinch early on.

Which isn’t the greatest metaphor for me to conjure up, I suppose — why bring a lead pipe to a gunfight? — but it’s late as I write this, and this comic has yet to worms its way out of my brain. Few cartoonists not named Schulz have a better, clearer, more intuitive understanding of a child’s mindset than Nall (his years as an arts educator are paying off on the printed page), but his unassuming long-form masterpiece, Lawns, showed that he was equally in tune with the contemporary zeitgeist of “fly-over country,”as well, particularly the uneasy place eccentrics hold within it — and here both of those not-exactly-polarities-but-let’s-go-with-it (again, it’s late) provide the narrative ebb and flow when such is necessary, downright tug when that’s in order. This is who we are, as seen through the eyes of one who’s been there and done that, as well as one who’s only just arriving.

What can be counted on is the absolute skill and charm of Nall’s classically-influenced cartooning, brisk and expressionistic with smartly-chosen points of visual emphasis, but what can’t be counted on is the health of the relationship between our two principals — Mel’s heart appears to be in the right place, but introducing a kid to the purported “joys” of a rubber band gun may not be the smartest move in the post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook, post-every-other-goddamn-school shooting era. Nall’s not afraid to tackle this head on, as a new broadcast announcing yet another of these tragic events gives Mel pause to think, but is it already too little, too late? At what point are pernicious influences imprinted upon us? Was Arthur Janov right all along? Were the Catholics who harped on about “original sin” without ever pinpointing exactly what that sin was?

Yeah, we’re gonna go that deep here — I think. But it’s not like Nall’s out to beat you over the head, or even to hold your hand. Like the best of his cohorts in this beleaguered medium, he’s a master at asking the important questions, but lets you evaluate — and subsequently choose from — all the various and sundry potential answers for yourself. What that means in practical terms is a story with a message that refuses to sacrifice the former in service of the ladder. Young cartoonists, pay attention — this is how you do relevance without torching narrative integrity.

The idea of a serialized story is one that’s coming around at the right time for this particular comics auteur, as well — having shown his artistic chops with the single-pager and the “graphic novel,” he’s clearly both ready for, and in need of, a new challenge, and this promises to be exactly that. Yeah, odds are it’ll be collected in its entirety at some point, but planning and executing a story chapter by chapter is a different beast than plotting out a 100-odd page self-contained text. The placement of key story “beats” and plot revelations are more gradual and more precise simultaneously, and when you’ve mastered everything you’re tried to the near-flawless extent Nall has, you’re in a “stagnation equals death” equation. If Kids With Guns #1 proves one thing above all else, it’s that we needn’t worry about him being a cartoonist willing to rest on his laurels. Yes, he’s keenly aware of what he does well, but that doesn’t (and in the best of circumstances shouldn’t) mean he’s not willing to play to his own strengths while moving outside the confines of his own comfort zone. There’s confidence in announcing that you know what you’re good at, as long as that doesn’t mean you’re unwilling to get better at it, or to explore it within a different framework and ethos.

All of which is me letting you know this is a serious work undertaken by someone with a serious need to keep growing as an artist. It’s an astute piece of commentary on where we find ourselves that’s determined to demonstrate both how we got here and how we might get ourselves out — or maybe that should be if we can get ourselves out.

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Kids With Guns #1 is available for $8.00 from Alex Nall’s Storenvy site at https://alexnallcomics.storenvy.com/products/28630190-kids-with-guns-no-1

And while you’re in a spending mood, 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