Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Contemporary Collections

Moving right along with our next-to-last “best of” list, we come to the Top 10 Contemporary Collections of 2020. Simply put, this category is devoted to collected editions of work originally published, either physically or digitally, since the year 2000, including Manga, webcomics, and Eurocomics. In practice, though, I’ll be honest and admit it’s all fairly recent stuff. Read on and you’ll see what I mean —

10. Inappropriate By Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized) – How the hell spoiled are we these days, anyway? The modern master of disarmingly frank autobio released one of her strongest collections to date and it seemed as though it hardly got a mention in critical circles. Like the Hernandez brothers, Bell’s work is so consistently good that I fear we as readers take it for granted. We shouldn’t — this is a book to be downright thankful for.

9. Snake Creek By Drew Lerman (Self-Published) – Lerman’s first collection of his charming, idiosyncratic strip firmly establishes him as the closest thing we have to a successor to the likes of Charles Schulz and George Herriman. Rest assured I invoke neither name lightly, and that this book backs up the comparison.

8. Goblin Girl By Moa Romanova, Translated By Melissa Bowers (Fantagraphics) – It was a breakout year for Sweden’s Romanova, who cemented her status as a “talent to watch” with the first English-language publication of this unique memoir focused on mental health, self-image and, of course, relationships. If she continues to build on the strength of this astounding book, then the future of this art from we love is in very good hands, indeed.

7. Ghostwriter By Rayco Pulido, Translated By Andrea Rosenberg (Fantagraphics) – A classic Eurocomics mystery thriller set in 1943 Barcelona and featuring a frisson of both political tension and identity confusion, the English-language debut of Spain’s Pulido is a bona fide clinic on how to keep readers off-balance. You’ll be guessing right up to the very end — and left guessing even more afterwards as to how this book didn’t get about ten times more attention and recognition than it did.

6. The Winter Of The Cartoonist By Paco Roca, Translated By Erica Mena (Fantagraphics) – Damn if Fanta doesn’t keep putting out one more Roca masterwork after another, year after year, and this gripping drama about five cartoonists striking out on their own against the big publishing houses in 1957 fascist Spain is more than just a page-turner, it’s possibly the best creators’ rights treatise authored by anyone to date. Another essential read from one of the great auteurs of the medium.

5. J&K By John Pham (Fantagraphics) – A comprehensive collection of the misadventures of Pham’s lovable losers was long overdue, but it was also worth the wait, as this hardback compendium comes complete with more “extras” than you can shake a stick at, including posters, stickers, and a vinyl record! Nobody understands the relationship between printing, packaging, production, and content better than Pham, and this is the most seamlessly-integrated realization of his vision to date.

4. Grip By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – Westvind’s phantasmagoric, whirlwind paen to the strength and resolve of women working in the trades was a revelation in two parts, but reads even more seamlessly collected as a complete epic. It’s also arguably the best use of Riso printing to date in comics. A book of the ages and, even more importantly, for the ages.

3. The Contradictions By Sophie Yanow (Drawn+Quarterly) – Already celebrated as one of the best comics memoirs in recent memory, Yanow’s Eisner Award-winning webcomic gains added depth and emotion in this collected print volume. In fact, it looks and feels like something you’d bring with you on the very sort of European road trip that it documents with such frank and emotive sincerity.

2. Nineteen By Ancco, Translated By Janet Hong (Drawn+Quarterly) – A unique and heady mix of autobio and fiction, Korean cartoonist Ancco’s second book to be translated into English is a showcase for both her artistic versatility and her singular ability to transmute the angst and trauma of youth into truly unforgettable comics stories. If this one doesn’t rip your heart out at least a dozen times over, then you probably don’t have one.

1. Vision By Julia Gfrorer (Fantagraphics) – Originally self-published as a series of minis, Gfroer’s latest work, read in collected form, offers the most succinct and assured crystallization of her singular combination of concerns to date, blending historical “period-piece” storytelling with body horror with feminist theory with supernatural mystery with richly understated social commentary to remind us that what we fear most and what we desire most are often one and the same thing. Intimacy is a double-edged sword throughout Gfrorer’s remarkable body of work, and never more true than it is here, in what is surely the defining statement of her artistic career — so far.

Only one list to go — tomorrow we do the Top 10 Original Graphic Novels of 2020, and then it’s full steam ahead into the new year!

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This review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by 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. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very gratified indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look and, should you feel so inclined, join up.

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Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

Here it is, the final “top ten” list in our year-end wrap, and probably the one people are most interested in. Books in this category are comprised of all-new material, never serialized in single issues or online, and constructed specifically for the so-called “graphic novel” format. And your “winners” are —

10. Blood And Drugs By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom Books) – A visceral, harrowing firsthand account of addiction and recovery on the social and economic margins by a cartoonist with a busted hand. One of the most immediate and unmediated works in recent memory, this one will leave an indelible mark on your brain.

9. The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade By Viken Berberian And Yann Kebbi (Fantagraphics) – Exploring architecture and gentrification as inherently political topics, this exquisitely-illustrated book has much to say about damn near everything,  yet never feels like a treatise or lecture. There’s nothing rotten about it at all, comrade.

8. Theth : Tomorrow Forever By Josh Bayer (Tinto Press) – Incorporating elements of memoir and metafiction to tell this remarkable coming-of-age tale, Bayer uses genre to explore deeply personal topics and to paint a portrait of a life that could well and truly “go either way.” Utterly unique stuff that will make you glad your late-teens and/or early-twenties are over with.

7. The Death Of The Master By Patrick Kyle (Koyama Press) – Meet the new boss, same as — ah, you know the drill. But you’ve never seen that axiom bought to life in such a formally inventive and wryly satirical manner. Kyle is in full command of his considerable gifts here, and you pass on it at your peril.

6. Gender Queer By Maia Kobabe (Lion Forge) – An intellectually and emotionally resonant memoir of awakening that addresses issues of gender and sexuality, or their absence, with frankness, insight, honesty, and even a little bit of humor. One of the year’s most important and engagingly-drawn books.

5. Pittsburgh By Frank Santoro (New York Review Comics) – A lavishly-illustrated account of a family and a city’s declining fortunes and the oblique reasons behind them, this is the crowning achievement of Santoro’s career and a testament to the power of emotional survival and perseverance. As formally exciting as it is deeply personal, this is a book that richly rewards re-reading and reveals new thematic depth every time you do so.

4. Grip Vol. 2 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – The second volume of Westvind’s soaring, elegiac tribute to working women everywhere serves as both perfect companion piece to, and necessary extension of, the first. Bursting with dynamic action and illustration, this is a genuinely triumphant and transcendent work.

3. The Hard Tomorrow By Eleanor Davis (Drawn+Quarterly) – A moving and very much “of the moment” exploration of what it means to be human, to be involved in a relationship, and to bring new life into the world, Davis’ boldest and most ambitious work yet cements her reputation as one of our most important contemporary cartoonists. This is who we are, where we are, and what we hope for all wrapped up in one one visually sumptuous package.

2. Bezimena By Nina Bunjevac (Fantagraphics) – A searing and disturbing portrait of obsession and mania, this psychologically violent work is as essential as it is difficult, and Bunjevac’s amazingly detailed cartooning is the very definition of darkly alluring. Tough to read, sure, but absolutely impossible to forget.

1. How I Tried To Be A Good Person By Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics) – A towering achievement in the field of comics memoir, Lust’s dense and thorough-going examination of a pivotal and formative period of her life leaves no stone unturned and stands out for its absolute emotional honesty. Brave, confident, and visually literate in the extreme, this is one of those rare books that establishes its author as a true master of the medium.

And we’re done! It’s been quite the task compiling all these lists, but I suppose that was to be expected — after all, it’s been quite a year. 2019 saw more quality comics releases than anyone could possibly keep up with, and to call that a “good problem to have” is to sell the situation far short. In point of fact, we’re living in a new Golden Age of creativity and expression, and if you dig my ongoing coverage and analysis of it, then please consider 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. I’d be very grateful indeed to have your support, so do give it a look at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

 

An Even Firmer “Grip”

Oh, hell yes.

The first volume of Lale Westvind’s Grip was one of the standout releases of 2018, a rapturous visual feast that paid tribute to working women everywhere — particularly women working in the trades — but with our nameless protagonist having triumphed against external foes, in the recently-released Grip Vol. 2 she turns her whirlwind “super-hands” to the task of transcendence through construction. And, as you’d no doubt expect, it’s a very formidable task indeed.

Once again, Perfectly Acceptable Press knocks it out of the park with their artisan riso printing, federal blue, fluorescent red, and yellow gradations exploding off the page with the same guts and gusto as every panel in Westvind’s wordless 88-page story, which functions as both sequel and necessary counter-balance to the fist “chapter,” antagonists that demanded a firm physical and theoretical beat-down now giving way to the probably more challenging, but if anything even more necessary, act of creation.

However, while there’s no achievement without struggle,  Westvind’s story wisely and bravely celebrates both in equal measure — her heroine has earned her place among the immortal pantheon of working women, but she’s got to prove she’s earned it by finding a way to take her place up, literally, in the clouds. She must imagine, construct, and pilot a vehicle that will take her to where she both needs and deserves to go. Nothing is given, sure, but it goes well beyond that — nothing is easy, even with a pair of hands that can do pretty well anything.

Leaving quaint terms such as “dynamic” and “bold” in the rear view mirror hundreds of miles back, Westvind’s cartooning is a crackling, hyper-kinetic synthesis of motion, imagination, homage, and philosophical intent that takes justifiable pride in its own finely-honed execution, the artist herself clearly in love with the process of translating ideas into imagery through sheer, sweaty labor. She draws with force, and readers can’t fail to pick up on that, her own efforts reflected in those of her central character and vice-versa — to a very real degree, then, this is a comic that draws clear and celebratory parallels between its own creation, the story it’s telling, and the inspirational figures that gave impetus to it. We’re operating on at least three levels at once here, then, and readers more astute than myself may even — nah, you know what? I’m going to take a page from Westvind’s playbook and show unmitigated confidence in my own efforts to analyze and parse this work, because that’s the sort of thing I’m actually pretty damn good at, and I’m proud of that.

And pride is at the beating, endlessly-pumping heart of the entire Grip project, both sides of its coin now plainly coalescing into a holistic statement of purpose, reflecting and supplementing and melding into one another seamlessly, creating a joyous work that epitomizes the very triumph it relates, a paean to entirely earned confidence gained via trial by fire (or wind), a veritable tornado of rapturously feminist visual storytelling the likes of which I daresay we haven’t seen before — and that will hopefully inspire others to tells us their stories by means of their unique voices and skill sets . Westvind — and her extraordinary, instantly-legendary heroine — wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Grip Vol. 2 is available for $35.00 from Perfectly Acceptable press at http://perfectly-acceptable.com/item/grip-2/

Also, this review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by 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. Subscribing is the best way to support my ongoing work, so please give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

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/