Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Comics Series

As we trudge on with our year-end review, we come next to a category that’s fairly easy to explain : TOP TEN COMICS SERIES refers to any ongoing or limited comic book series that saw more than one issue released in the past calendar year. As you’re about to see, anthologies — both solo and multi-creator — ruled the roost in 2021, a trend I’d be most happy to see continue. But we’ll worry about that in the future, for now here are my personal picks for best comics series in the present :

10. Bubblegum Maelstrom By Ryan Alves (Awe Comics) – Alves just plain tore it up in 2021, producing two issues of this now-concluded solo anthology title, the last of which was an 80-plus-page monster. Fitting, I suppose, given that monstrosity itself was a core concern of so many of the strips in this series. Bu turns grotesque and exquisite, sometimes both, Alves really went for the conceptual jugular with this comic, and I’m more than anxious to see what he does next.

9. Flop Sweat By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom) – Don’t you dare say memoir is dead until you’re read this. Ward’s autobio series is harrowing, heartfelt, sometimes even humorous — but never less than painfully honest. When the abyss that gazes back is your own life, and you can still make compelling art from that? You’ve got guts to match your skills. Never doubt Ward’s abundance of both.

8. Love And Rockets By Gilbert And Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – If you find a best-of list that this title isn’t on, you’ve found yourself one lazy-ass critic. Or a stupid one. Down a few spots from where I normally place it simple because, sorry to say, Beto’s current stuff isn’t registering with me to the degree it usually does, but hey — Jaime is continuing to produce some of the best comics of his career.

7. Vacuum Decay, Edited By Harry Nordlinger (Self-Published) – The most uncompromising underground horror anthology in decades continued to push the envelope with issue three — and with issue four, it just plain wiped its ass with it. To quote my own tweet back at me (speaking of lazy critics) : this is a comic that goes there. Whether you want to go with it or not, well — that’s your call. I know I’m down for the ride.

6.Rust Belt Review, Edited By Sean Knickerbocker (Self-Published) – Knickerbocker’s own strips about the tribulations and travails of life in “flyover country” set the tone for this diverse, oversized anthology centered on the big dreams and big problems of people with so-called “small” lives. Quintessential reading for everyone who understands that neither neoliberalism nor Trumpian neofascism (nor, for that matter, ‘tech bro” libertariansim) offers any solutions to those ground under by the wheels of what some still laughably term “progress.” Real stories about real people are the order of the day here.
5. Goiter Comics By Josh Pettinger (Tinto Press/Kilgore Books) – Two issues in one year from two publishers? Pettinger was one busy cartoonist in 2021, and the increased workload seems to be agreeing with him — from his strongest character studies to the opening salvo of an OMAC-esque dystopian fable by way of the Amazon warehouse, this was the year this title well and truly came into its own and left any Clowes and Ware comparisons firmly in its rear view.

4. Acid Nun By Corinne Halbert (Self-Published) – Psychedelic cosmic interdimensional Satanic nunspolitation with a generous helping of BDSM fetishism not just on the side, but front and center? Sign me the fuck up for that any day, and when you factor in Halbert’s astonishing compositions and use of color what you’ve got is one of the most visually literate comics of the year as well as probably the most deliciously pervy. Plenty to turn your crank whether you’re gay, straight, somewhere in between, or completely undecided, but there’s something more going on here than erotic stimulation for its own sake (not that there’s anything wrong with that) — if you appreciate a cartoonist who’s clearly playing a “long game” of stimulating you libidinally as foreplay to stimulating you intellectually, you’ve come to the right place.

3 Future By Tommi Musturi (Self-Published) – A web that draws you in by continuing to expand outward, Musturi’s various (and variously-styled) narratives never cease to impress, even as they bob and weave between confounding and illuminating. Everything is building toward something here — a conceptual singularity, at least, and perhaps even a narrative one —but I’m enjoying the individual journeys far too much to be ready for a destination yet. It doesn’t get much more unique than this, folks — a series you already miss before it’s even over.

2. Reptile House, Edited By (I’m Assuming Here) Nick Bunch (Reptile House Comix) – Created and published by a de facto artistic collective out of Philly, this is exhibit B for my contention that locally-focused anthologies are the future of comics. A heady mix of long-form continuing narratives and hilariously visceral one-offs, 99% of the cartoonists appearing in these pages are folks that I’ve never heard of before, but their work — like this series itself — just gets stronger and stronger as it goes on. And they wrapped up an already amazingly strong year with a killer 3-D issue. This is grassroots comics-making the way you remember it — and the way you’ve never seen it before.

1. Tinfoil Comix, Edited By Floyd Tangeman With Co-Edits On #4 By Austin English (Dead Crow/Domino Books) – As for exhibit A for my contention about locally-based anthologies, this is it right here. Tangeman’s Bay Area anthology will, mark my words, go down as the most important signifier of not just where comics are, but where they’re going, since Kramers Ergot 4. This series burned as quickly and brightly as one can imagine, and the mark it left is going to be felt for years to come. We’ll see if the new bi-coastal “successor” series Tangeman and English are cooking up can keep the creative momentum going, but if the job they did together on #4 is any indication, we’ve got plenty to be excited about.

Next up we’ll do the “grab-bag” category that is TOP TEN SPECIAL MENTIONS, but in the meantime please consider helping me crank out more of this kind of theoretically enjoyable content by subscribing to my Patreon, 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. Here’s a link : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Single Issues

Is it that time of year again? Why yes, indeed, it is that time of year again — specifically, the end of the year, and with it my end-of-year “Top 10” lists. As usual, things are divvied up into six categories : Top 10 Single Issues (stand-alone comics or comics that are part of an ongoing series that saw only one issue published this year), Top 10 Ongoing Series (serialized comics that saw two or more issues published in the past year), Top 10 Special Mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books on comics history, art books or sketchbooks, or books that utilize words and pictures but don’t adhere to traditional rules of sequential storytelling), Top 10 Vintage Collections (books that reprint work originally published prior to the year 2000), Top 10 Contemporary Collections (books that reprint work originally published, physically or digitally, after the year 2000 and going right up to the present day), and Top 10 Original Graphic Novels (all-new books specifically constructed as graphic novels and were never serialized in installments). And with those ground rules out of the way, we’ll begin where we always do, with my choices for the year’s Top 10 single-issue or stand-alone comics :

10. Goiter #5 By Josh Pettinger (Tinto Press) – After four issues, Pettinger exits the self-publishing ranks and the extra time devoted purely to craft pays off with one of his most surreal and absorbing character studies yet, as an underemployed teen become an unemployed teen and sees his life spiral out of control after being roped into an extra-legal murder investigation. The spirit of Clowes and Ware lives on in this series, but Pettinger’s authorial concerns and cartooning are now well and truly entirely his own.

9. The Garden By Lane Yates And Garrett Young (Self-Published) – A mysterious and ethereal love/horror story that reveals new depths with each reading, this is the most alluring narrative puzzlebox in quite some time. For all the wonderful qualities Yates’ story possesses though, it may just be Young’s art that steals the show/seals the deal/pick your cliche, as it transports readers to a truly alien world populated with achingly human characters rendered in exquisitely moody detail.

8. Flop Sweat #1 By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom Books) – The first installment in what promises to be a gripping childhood memoir from Ward, exploring the roots of alienation and “otherness” with sensitivity, honesty, and even a bit of humor. Ward is well and truly coming into his own as memoirist, and you’d be well-advised to get in on the ground floor with this book before everybody’s all over it. That way you can say you’re a cool and astute reader, ya know?

7. Five Perennial Virtues #11 – Broken Pieces By David Tea (Self-Published) – Perhaps the greatest iconoclast in all of comics produces the strongest issue of his long-running series to date — as well as the most accessible. Part history lecture, part absurdist fantasy, and all Dave Tea, this feels very much like “outsider art” until you realize the author actually understands the comics form implicitly — he just refuses to play by many of its established rules.

6. Mini Kus! #91 – Sufficient Lucidity By Tommi Parrish (Kus!) – The modern master of navigating the complexities of interpersonal relationships via the comics medium, here Parrish takes us on a journey by dropping us off very nearly at the end of it. Lavishly illustrated and economically scripted, this is pure emotion on the page, and will haunt your dreams long after reading it.

5. Rotten By M.S. Harkness (Self-Published) – Another painfully embarrassing, to say nothing of painfully funny, slice-of-life comic from Harkness, this one hitting home with extra wallop due to its chronological setting : right around the 2016 election. Still, it’s Harkness’ consistently-fearless portrayal of herself that stands out as the book’s most memorable, if occasionally disconcerting, feature. If you haven’t tried one of her long-form graphic novels yet, this is the perfect smaller “sample size” to dip your toes in, and trust me when I say you’ll immediately want more.

4. Tad Martin #8 – Tears Of The Leather-Bound Saints By Casanova Frankenstein (Fantagraphics Underground) -Encompassing everything from dystopian industrial hellscapes to childhood memoir and all points in between, Frankenstein’s latest outing featuring his constantly-evolving authorial stand-in takes the form of a deliberately disjointed “tone poem,” a one-man anthology focused on various stages of personal apocalypse. Shot through with grotesque “gallows humor” and caustically accurate social commentary, this is another tour-de-force from arguably our most uncompromising contemporary cartoonist.

3. Malarkey #5 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Garcia closes out her masterful autobio series on a very high note amidst relentlessly dark times as she explores mortality from all sides, offering readers stories about life’s end in equal proportion to those centered around the little things that make life worth living. The pandemic looms large here but is, uncannily, never specifically referenced. Don’t ask me how she managed that — I’m just grateful that she did. No other comic captures the essence of life in 2020 like this one.

2. Theater Of Cruelty By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – A sprawling yet agonizingly insular look at the vagaries of life that haunt its author and frankly haunt us all, this is “solo anthology” comics at their finest, weaving a dense tapestry of darkness from threads of fable, poetry, ancestral memory, and autobio. As surely beyond classification as it is beyond good and evil, Oshima’s magnum opus leaves you reeling in silence.

1. Constantly By G.G. (Koyama Press) – A bit of a cheat as this was packaged as a slim book, but slim is the key word — as in, 48 pages. That puts it firmly in the “single issue” camp by my admittedly subjective standards, but it nevertheless leaves an indelible mark with its austere art and minimalist language combining to explore both the roots and manifestations of doubt and anxiety, portraying a world where all tasks are monumental and likely pointless. Haunted within and haunting without, this is comics poetry at its apex as a medium and a bona fide masterpiece for the ages.

I’ll let you all absorb this list for a few days before returning with my picks for the the Top 10 Ongoing Series of the year!

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Review wrist check – Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “George” leather strap in brown from their “Performance” series.

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 continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

All Cooped Up : Lance Ward’s “A Good Man’s Brother”

Let’s be honest : at this point a person could commit an entire blog to reviewing nothing but quarantine-centric diary comics, simply because so many cartoonists are filling their own blogs with quarantine-centric diary comics themselves. Which is, of course, to be expected given present(-ish) circumstances — but it also means that it’s getting more and more difficult for any particular cartoonist’s quarantine work to stand out from the pack, simply because there’s a real glut of this kind of stuff out there.

Fellow Twin Cities resident Lance Ward needn’t worry, however — autobio has always been his “jam,” as the young folks said a few years back (when they were even younger — but then, so were all of us), and diary comics are often just short-form autobio strips in and of themselves. What makes his new collection of them, A Good Man’s Brother, a bit different than his previous efforts, though, is that rather than concentrating entirely on material that’s either unique to him (as he does in the pages of Flop Sweat) or to those in recovery (as he did in last year’s Blood And Drugs), much of the contents here are pretty well universal, as the physical, mental, and emotional ups and downs of a more isolated, or at the very least socially distant, life are things that almost everyone can relate to at this point.

Ward sets the stage with a bit of pre-COVID stuff, both to help set a tone and to introduce certain life circumstances that will become more pronounced once the lockdown hits, but by and large the bulk of this material was created between late March and early May 2020, so we’re dealing with a tight, hermetic time frame that most of us won’t require too much by way of recall prowess to bring back to the forefront of our minds — and who are we kidding? It’s not like that much has changed between then and now. And yet —

Reading this in the here and now really does plant you firmly back in the then, and while Ward (no surprise) starts things off with daily (or thereabouts) strips about life in his (and our) then-new reality, in due course the effects of a locked down life take precedence over the specifics, and this is actually when things get more interesting : as the pandemic becomes a constant feature of life (hell, the constant feature of life) rather than something to adjust to on the fly, its presence is actually felt even more acutely. Ward responds duly, keeping his creativity sharp by splitting his attentions and following his muse in equal measure. “A Day In The Life”-type content recedes into the background a bit, then, in favor of parodies of “Sunday Funnies”-style strips, a recurring “Diary Input” done on his computer (or tablet, I dunno), annotated sketchbook illustrations, even philosophical musings. There’s still plenty going on that’s about the vagaries of the “COVID mindset,” but more and more what we’re presented with are strips that are the result of it.

Likewise, Ward’s drawing style morphs in accordance with his interests, his trademark heavy linework occasionally finding itself shuffled aside in order to experiment with finely-detailed illustration, classically-influenced cartooning, rapid-fire scrawling, and some time-saving stuff that’s uniform in appearance, sure, but entirely apropos for its subject matter. Obviously, some pages are more successfully-realized than others, but that’s the nature of diary comics even absent a pandemic — and the remarkable thing is that they’re all partially successful to at least one degree or another.

By the time all is said and done, it’s clear that Ward himself is still navigating his way through the morass that is the contemporary world, and even through his reactions to it — including the idea of making comics about it — but just about any artist worth following is usually questioning anything and everything, including themselves and the value (therapeutic or otherwise) of their work. It’s that fearlessness and honesty that Ward displays, then — not just when it comes to dealing with the pandemic, but with issues that will surely outlast it — that ensures that, although quarantine comics will be with us for as long as the quarantine is, in years to come, when I feel the need to remind myself what all of this was like, this is the one I’ll turn to.

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Lance Ward is selling A Good Man’s Brother via Amazon’s (sorry) print-on-demand program. You can order one up for $10.00 by going to https://www.amazon.com/Good-Mans-Brother-Lance-Ward/dp/B08BWCBMGN

Review wrist check – Tsao Baltimore “Torsk Diver” green dial model riding an Ocean Crawler black-and-orange NATO strap.

The Origins Of Alienation : Lance Ward’s “Flop Sweat” #1

For his third release from Birdcage Bottom Books in under a year, Twin Cities cartoonist Lance Ward is once again going the autobio/memoir route, but taking more of a “long view” than he did with his tightly-focused graphic novel Blood And Drugs and it short companion/epilogue publication, The Truth Behind Blood And Drugs. Specifically, he’s going back to his childhood, beginning his ruminations at age 11 when he lived with his soon-to-splintered family in the soul-dead “exurb” of Forest Lake, Minnesota — a place that, trust me, anyone is lucky to make it out of in one piece, mentally speaking.

It’s debatable whether or not Ward managed to actually do that, of course, although he seems stable, amicable, and definitely on a creative “hot streak” in recent months, a fact for which we should all be grateful — but getting to “here” from “there” has been no easy task for the suddenly-prolific artist, and while there’s very little by way of either of blood or drugs to be found in Flop Sweat #1 (the first of what promises to be at least a six-issue run), you do come away from this mini with a pretty clear understanding of how both came to feature prominently in his life, as well as why.

All that being said, if you’re a Ward “newbie,” this ain’t a bad place to start. Presented in lush full color, the immediacy of his slapdash-style, loose and sketchy illustration is arresting and would frankly both feel false and lose a good degree of its impact if it were more polished and professional. Ditto for the economic scripting, which likewise privileges the nearest thing memory can approximate to authenticity above, say, literary style, and again not only does the job, but lends to the work the raw power it needs to be truly effective. I would surmise that most readers of this site have read a literal shit-ton of autobio comics in their time, with the absolutely ubiquitous sub-genre of “childhood memoir” looming large in that reading history, but you’ve seldom seen it executed this well, with this level of resonance.

Which probably — and understandably — would lead one to assume that what we’ve got on our hands with this one is a litany or tragedies and travails both large and small, and that’s partly true, but not entirely. Yeah, there’s familial disintegration when his alcoholic father flies the coop and his mother descends into an endless internal pit of anger, bitterness, and despair that she externalizes with devastating results; there’s the requisite economic hardship that tragically almost allows follows in the wake of abandonment; there’s school bullying and social banishment — hell, Ward even does a terrific job of reminding readers why “first-world problems” such as having to wear off-brand shoes as a kid can lead to quasi-permanent psychic scarring. But

Being nothing less than a master of pacing and narrative flow at this point in his career, Ward knows just when and how to intersperse his darkness with the occasional small blip of light, whether that comes in the form of relating vignettes that describe the solace he finds in reading comics and, eventually, drawing his own; the temporary sense of accomplishment and respect he feels when being cast in a school play; the sheer, unmitigated happiness he derives from riding an old bike around and, perhaps most crucially, the important interpersonal connection he slowly forges in his budding friendship with fellow outcast George, the child of a fundamentalist Pentecostal family whose customs and practices the young Ward (and probably his older self, truth be told) can’t begin to fathom, but whose generosity of spirit he absolutely values and appreciates.

Still, it’s mostly a series of “one step forward, two steps back” events here, and almost any progress Ward makes flies right out the window when his mother hooks up with a burly loser named Jim, who is nothing so much as an endless stream of belittlement and low-grade psychological abuse made lumpy flesh. Where things go from here is likely to be unpleasant (even if — spoiler alert! — Ward somehow manages to survive it all), especially considering that by issue’s end our budding anti-hero is firmly in that “acting out” phase that’s an interminable enough thing for even well-adjusted young teens to go through, but I flat-out defy you to bail out on the rest of the series after having read this debut installment. Ward is operating at the absolute height of his powers to date, and with only one issue under his belt, he’s already created one of the best ongoing series out there right now.

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Flop Sweat #1 is available for $6 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books at https://birdcage-bottom-books.myshopify.com/products/flop-sweat-1

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 I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

The Truth Behind “The Truth Behind Blood And Drugs”

It’s not every day that a long-form comics project (or, if you like, a “graphic novel”) gets its own separately-published postscript, much less one that takes the form of an eight-page mini comic presented in full color whereas the book it refers back to is in black and white — but we live in unusual times, as evidenced by the fact that I’m even reviewing an eight-page mini in the first place.

That being said, fellow Twin Cities resident Lance Ward has lived through much stranger times than these during his periods of addiction and subsequent recovery, and some of those are chronicled in The Truth Behind Blood And Drugs, the rather quickly-issued “epilogue” of sorts to last year’s celebrated Blood And Drugs that comes our way courtesy of the same publisher, J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books. And while I’m not prepared to go so far as to call it an essential item to read and/or own, it’s nevertheless a fascinating and even rather harrowing one that fleshes out the “real life” stories and scenarios that formed the backbone of its metaphorical “mothership” — and seeing as how that was precisely its remit, you’ve gotta congratulate Ward on a job well done. Or, more accurately, another job well done.

I went into Blood And Drugs figuring it was a work of memoir at the very least, maybe even outright autobio, and came out of it feeling that assumption to be justified — but, as already mentioned, I’m from Ward’s neck of the woods myself, so I recognized most of the haunts in St. Paul’s admirably sketchy (though it’s depressingly and quickly becoming gentrified thanks to the presence of a new sports stadium) Midway neighborhood that were thinly-disguised to protect the, uhhhmmm, entirely innocent? A reader from somewhere — hell, anywhere — else could, and probably would, be left wondering how much of the story was “real” and how much was “made up” to a far greater degree than I was, though, hence this comic. But a funny thing happened as I perused its assemblage of rapid-fire, watercolored single-page strips — I found out that certain of my assumptions made an ass of me, at the very least, while “u” remained unscathed. So much, then, for that old adage.

I guess what I’m easing my ego into accepting is that I sort of “got it wrong” in my initial review of Ward’s equally-initial comic. Not in any highly-appreciable way that would either reverse or outright negate my conclusions about it, but I do feel kind of bad for presenting it as entirely a work of non-fiction when this addendum makes clear that while the general character and tone of the book were real enough, many more of the specific details were tinkered with at the margins than I presumed them to be.

What it also does, though, is elucidate Ward’s reasoning for this, and the end result hatches something of a paradox — you understand why he fictionalized certain things, but end up with an even greater appreciation for the book’s authenticity as a result. I’m still puzzled as to how those two things could occur simultaneously, but what the hell — I’m not gonna argue with it, because anything that makes a damn good work of art seem even better is worth being grateful for, is it not?

And trust me when I say that I am grateful for this mini and for the added layers of understanding it affords readers of both it and, especially, its progenitor. You can — and will — be mightily impressed by Blood And Drugs without reading this, but you’re guaranteed to be even more impressed with it if you do.

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The Truth Behind Blood And Drugs is available for $2.00 (or just $1.00 if you buy the book itself) from Birdcage Bottom Books at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/products/the-truth-behind-blood-and-drugs

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 continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

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

 

 

 

Get Hooked On “Blood And Drugs”

Where I come from, drugs were always considered to be pretty fun — and, for the record, I feel that if consumed responsibly they are — but who are we kidding? Kicking them can be a real motherfucker, and it’s not like the path of recovery isn’t perilous in its own right. And when you’re in recovery, or attempting to begin recovery, on the social and economic margins, the entire enterprise is a hell of a lot trickier than it is for, say, some ne’er-do-well rich kid forced to walk the 12 steps after trashing daddy’s yacht.

Geographically speaking, at least, cartoonist Lance Ward is himself from “where I come from” — that being the Twin Cities, for those not in the know — but he’s clearly had a vastly different “drug experience” than I have, and in his new Birdcage Bottom Books-published original graphic novel, Blood And Drugs, his autobiographical stand-in character, Buster, indeed is having a hell of time kicking the habit from his position on those just-referenced social and economic margins. Oh, and a hand injury that renders him nearly unable to draw, effectively preventing him from both expressing himself creatively and making a living? That doesn’t help matters much.

With a narrative structure loosely based on the 12 steps themselves and a drawing style that reflects classically exaggerated cartooning sensibilities filtered through physical impairment, the book is a visceral gut punch, but not one determined to leave you down for the count : progress is possible in Ward’s story/memoir, but it’s hard won and not without “trade-off” costs of its own. The question Ward seems to be positing throughout, then, is not only what it takes to get and stay clean, but whether or not doing so is even a realistic option once a person is so far down a self-destructive path, and generally surrounded by people in the same position. And while the common answer you’ll likely hear from both right-wing “just say no” blowhards and liberal self-helpers is probably just either a mean or a nice version of “sure, if you really want it enough, you can do it,” the more realistic view offered from within the proverbial belly of the beast itself that Ward offers is that without real community and a healthy dose of the kindness of strangers, you’re ultimately doomed.

“Raw” and “immediate” are our two key buzzwords to keep in mind in relation to this work, as the “street-level” dialogue and necessarily haphazard illustration offer what can only be described as the most unmediated expression of personal armageddon and its aftermath committed to the comics page in recent memory, arguably ever. “Not for the faint of heart” may be a solid enough disclaimer to slap on this, especially if you are, but here’s the thing — it’s a book that is in no way, shape, or form heartless itself.

It is, however, tough. At times exceedingly so. The title itself makes that much plain as day to even the most oblivious would-be reader. But the odyssey of Ward’s “Buster” alter ego is also replete with small rewards, with timely acts of charity, with a kind of “gutter camaraderie” — and even with the occasional (small in reality, but large in context) triumph. Don’t be concerned about “feel-good” bullshit — this is far too honest a work for that. But it’s also honest enough to admit that even the roughest and most unforgiving of life’s slogs aren’t entirely absent occasional rays of sunshine, and that clinging to them — and working your ass off to make them a more frequent occurrence — is kinda what this whole process of coming out the other side is all about.

Going through all this admittedly difficult shit on the cold winder streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul only compounds the challenge, of course, and relapse looms around almost every corner, but the guarded optimism that makes its presence felt from time to time herein is not only an effective counterweight to the psychological and physical withdrawal, bleak employment and housing prospects, and casual violence that are the daily reality of addicts both current and former, it’s also both impressively brave and far less naive than the cynical may be inclined to believe. Reflective as it is, then, of the whole of addiction and recovery — good, bad, and all points in between — Ward’s book is a strong work of comics realism and one of the most instantly-memorable reads in some time.

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Blood And Drugs is available for $15 from Birdcage Bottom Books at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/products/blood-and-drugs

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. Joining up is the best way to support my ongoing work, so I’d be very grateful if you took a moment to give it a look and, should you feel so inclined, subscribe by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse