Creativity While “Isolated”

When we look on things a few years from now (assuming we make it that far), there’s a damn good chance that 2020 will be seen as a turning point for small press, self-published, and otherwise independent comics. Not only did we have the “heavy hitters” like Simon Hanselmann’s Crisis Zone and Alex Graham’s Dog Biscuits, we had diary comics galore from any number of cartoonists, as well as a smattering of “lockdown”-themed anthologies — artists, like the rest of us, were looking for anything to keep them sane while they were (by and large) stuck indoors, and new (predominantly digital) distribution methods were utilized, both by choice and necessity, to get their work out there. In many ways, sure, it seems like only yesterday, but in others it seems like a lifetime ago, so completely has the landscape shifted. And the changes to production and distribution that the pandemic engendered have proven to be every bit as resilient as has COVID-19 itself, really — I mean, how many comics are you reading on Instagram these days? I bet it’s more than you were in 2019.

I was somewhat surprised, then, to receive in the mail recently a handsomely-produced little anthology called Isolated, edited and published by Tana Oshima and featuring work produced primarily (with some exceptions) during the “height” of the lockdowns, that is available only in printed form. This is not a complaint, mind you — I made mention of Instagram comics a moment ago, but the truth is I don’t even have an Instagram account myself and prefer to keep things as “old school” as is humanly possible. I’m well aware, however, of what’s happening in the digital comics realm in a general sense, and so the idea of a a collection of pandemic-themed strips that bucks the trends and stays with the tried-and-true is inherently appealing to a stick in the mud such as myself — and even more importantly, so are the comics that Oshima is presenting here.

Of course, how could they not be given the veritable “murder’s row” of international talent she’s managed to put together? Roll call, in order of appearance : Celine Hudreaux on covers, with interior stories by Pedro Pablo Bacallao, E.A. Bethea, Angela Fanche, Ana Galvan, Jessica Garcia, November Garcia, Ness Ilene Garza, Marie Gilot, Kim Lam, Drew Lerman, Lui Mort, Roman Muradov, Hue Nguyen, Weng Pixin, Areeba Siddique, and Lane Yates. Veteran readers of my blathering will no doubt recognize many a cartoonist I’ve sung the praises of included in this list of luminaries, but there are a handful of names that I admit were new to me here as well, and lo and behold, they contribute some of the strongest entries in the book, so that admittedly shop-worn “something old, something new” axiom with regards to putting together a successful anthology? It absolutely rings true in this case.

Everyone is given four pages to work with (apart from Galvan, who only uses two), and as one would expect, pretty much all these strips are autobiographical in nature, but even the ones that aren’t in form are in spirit, given the same thing was resting heavy on everybody’s shoulders all over the world at the time — which rather brings me to my main point here : expect a uniquely unpleasant and harrowing reading experience with this as you look back on a time that absolutely no one is nostalgic for. These are all cartoonists operating at the full height of their considerable powers, so that semi-apocalyptic sense of dread we all felt in 2020? You’re gonna feel it all over again. It hangs over all in Sword of Damocles fashion, even in the strips with a nominally “lighter” tone. So if you’re understandably not yet ready to go down that road, while I’d still strongly urge you to get this book — after all, who knows how many copies are even out there — I’d likewise advise that you put it aside until you really feel up to it. Please. For your own sake.

Speaking for myself (because that’s the only person I’m remotely qualified to speak for in the first place), the predominant sensation this collection evoked in me was the strange dichotomy of those times — we were all going through the same thing, but since we were separated, we all experienced and processed it in highly personal ways. It didn’t help, I suppose, that politics did its level best to wrest control of the situation from science — and I’ll always find it as tragic as it was predictable that the same assholes who lectured us about “coming together” in the wake of 9/11 so they could pursue bloodthirsty and profit-driven wars of conquest abroad were the ones telling us to piss in the face of unity during the lockdowns — but by and large the very nature of isolation itself gave rise to myriad interpretations of both what the lockdowns meant and how best to navigate them. This book, by dint of the wide range of distinctive voices it presents, captures the essence of what it means to individually experience a collective nightmare.

Also worth noting : thanks to the efforts of Oshima and her predecessor on the project Andrew Losowsky, grant funding was secured so that all of the contributors were paid for their efforts — and we all remember how vital that was at the time. You can feel good about buying this comic, then, even if it’s not a “feel-good” collection per se — it is, however, a vital and necessary one, as well as a testament to art’s ability to help us get through the roughest of rough times.

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Isolated is available for $12.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/isolated.html

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

The Ballad Of Kitty And Raymond : Lane Yates’ “Single Camera Sitcom” #1

It’s tricky, when you’re reading something that strikes you as being wholly original yet wears its influences so plainly on its sleeve, to adequately describe the sensation it leaves you with : deja vu for something that never was? Or perhaps, to quote Jello Biafra, “nostalgia for an age that never existed”?

I dunno — and I’m really good at not knowing lately, incidentally — but it’s fair to say that Lane Yates’ self-published comic (and an admirably slick and glossy self-published comic it is) Single Camera Sitcom #1 took me to places both familiar and foreign, but with the added caveat that they seemed familiar precisely because they were foreign and vice-versa. In a pinch, I’d say its most immediate stylistic antecedent is Greg Stump’s Disillusioned Illusions, but in another pinch I might say nah, that honor belongs to — well, to any actual single-camera televised sitcom. Can we meet somewhere in the middle, like Jeep and Bruce Springsteen would like us to do with the white nationalists and QAnon crazies? That’d sure be swell, wouldn’t it?

Look, this computer-generated strip has been running on Instagram and various and sundry (and, it would appear, perhaps rotating — but I could be wrong) other venues since 2018, but I only caught up with it just shortly prior to Yates collecting the first 38 chapters/segments/installments/whatever in physical form, so this debut publication is a de facto “reprint” that just so happens to be seeing actual print for the first time. Kitty and Raymond are our roommate protagonists who don’t much seem to leave their room but, like Stump’s shadows, stuff seems to come to them, or the scene seems to shift around them, or maybe they do “go places” without, uhhmmm, going anywhere, but in a way the particulars are unimportant. Just vital. To an extent, at any rate.

What fascinates me every bit as much the banter and the quips and the cut-out imagery, though, is the placement of people and objects in relation to one another that Yates is engaged in here. Appropriating static images that are beyond one’s control both by definition and from the outset, and then precisely controlling their utilization is probably — okay, definitely — an art form unto itself, and I’ve seldom seen it exercised as deftly in terms of overall care and skill as it is in these pages. Subplots and narrative threads intersect and converge and break off in ways that are entirely unexpected while feeling intrinsically “right” because Yates’ de facto collages maintain a singular inner logic that can seemingly unfurl in any direction for any reason — or for no reason. What matters more than utility here is efficacy, proving once and for all that the two needn’t necessarily go hand in hand.

I’m getting depressingly pretentious here, and what’s even more depressing is that I know it, but don’t blame that on this comic because, to reiterate, it is pretty goddamn funny — especially if absurdism is your bag, because that’s baked right into the cake. And while I can no longer eat cake — or at least cake that’s any fucking good — I can, and I do, enjoy reading this comic. A lot. And I’m fairly certain that you will too, although perhaps for reasons entirely different from mine. Its methodology may be limited, but its possibilities strike me as being limitless, and part of the joy of examining auteur projects such as this one lies in teasing out the the inherent tension between form and function and seeing how each metaphorically carries water for the other.

A final touch worth noting are the “production notes” underneath each panel, which would seem to be a novel and entirely apropos metafictional device, but in point of fact end up serving the role of Cassandra, as well — see how often, for instance, you’re ready to mentally “laugh” or “clap” in your mind before the “audience” (that would be you and me) is instructed to do so. Life imitating art — but doing it first? One more innovation from the mind (if not the pen or brush) of Yates — in a work composed entirely of found, conscripted, or otherwise creatively-appropriated parts.

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Single Camera Sitcom #1 is available for $11 from Lane Yates’ Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/listing/922995680/single-camera-sitcom?ref=shop_home_active_1&crt=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 continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to 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

At Play Amidst The Strangeness And Charm : Lane Yates And Garrett Young’s “The Garden”

A collaborative effort between writer Lane Yates and artist Garrett Young that was self-published toward the tail end of 2019, The Garden is a curious and fascinating mini that weaves an utterly unique spell that exemplifies the notion of, with apologies to Dan Clowes, an iron first under a velvet glove. But that fist is all the more powerful for restraining itself and never quite connecting.

Set in a bucolic and lavish landscape rife with strange growth, an aging couple referred to only as “Neighbor” and “Fellow” strike up an intimate relationship in the midst of “all this dreadful beauty,” largely because — apart from an omnipresent, multi-eyeballed observer — there doesn’t appear to be anybody else around. Details are scarce — aside from those found within Young’s intense, intricate illustrations — and that’s one of the comic’s most intriguing facets : who these people are, what they’re doing here, why this “Eyeball Kid” (apologies this time to Eddie Campbell) is apparently acting as a de facto “border guard” between this hermetically-sealed world and the one that may or may not exist outside it, why a “neighborhood” with the character and affect of many an entirely-foreclosed-upon suburban cul-de-sac should exist within these alien (in the most precise sense of the word) environs — these are left entirely up to the reader to determine for themselves, and seem purposely left wide open for allegorical interpretation.

The rigid formalism of the book’s page layouts add to the feeling of this reality being entirely separate and self-contained, and ditto for Yates’ largely-stiff and expository dialogue, which has a rhythm and cadence all its own that nevertheless complements the artwork beautifully. In the eyes of many a reader of “avant-garde,” “independent,” or “art” comics, it’s taken as a given that one head is always better than two, but this is very much a singular work of artistic expression — it’s just that it happens to have been made by a pair of people. Seamlessness off the page leads to seamlessness on it, then, it would appear.

All looks and reads well, then — but all certainly never feels well. The passage of time isn’t just a fact of life in this seemingly-Edenic vista, it hangs over all like an oppressive force — which, let’s face it, is precisely what time is, it’s just that we’re trained and conditioned to take it as a given. Not so here, however — and that fourth-dimensional pressure, while unseen, never goes unnoticed. And it only seems to run in one direction — Neighbor and Fellow change, age, and all that, but their surroundings? Not so much. In fact, not at all.

This lends the entire proceedings a sense of unease and dread that’s always at a remove; it hangs over things without crashing down on them. The pacing here is borderline-idyllic, to be sure, but it’s nevertheless fraught with an almost sublime tension, the end result being something close to what a leisurely-expanding fraught nerve might feel like — assuming there actually was such a thing.

That might be a metaphor that’s ultimately impossible to apply to anything, then — they tend to be more successful when referring to things that actually exist — but I feel pretty confident in its usage here, given that this is a comic that is utterly and absolutely unlike anything else itself. And while it may be short, don’t be surprised if you spend hours with it — and if it lingers in your mind even longer than that after you’ve put it aside.

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The Garden is available for $8 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/thegarden.html

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 indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse