Laura Lannes’ “John, Dear” : The Most Subtle Traps Are The Most Insidious

“There is nothing in the dark that isn’t there when the lights are on.”

So Rod Serling told us, at any rate, but there’s simply no convincing the subconscious mind of that, is there? As a result, darkness, through no fault of its own, has become the go-to metaphor for negativity, depression, evil, you name it. Difficult or challenging times in life are “dark” times. The historical era dominated by superstition and anti-intellectualism is referred to as the “Dark Ages.” Encroaching despair is the “darkness closing in on us.”

It’s primal. It’s instinctive. Our rational minds know that it makes no sense, but nevertheless — darkness isn’t just symbolic of fear, it’s symbolic of all fear, of the fear. The fear of losing ourselves into all-encompassing, all-devouring nothingness.

Laura Lannes understands this more intuitively than any cartoonist working today, and I say that without a moment’s hesitation. Her strips in the anthologies Bad Boyfriends (which she edited) and Mirror Mirror II (which she didn’t) hinted at the darkness that can slowly, inexorably creep into unhealthy relationships, but her recent solo release from Retrofit/Big Planet, John, Dear goes the full distance, charting in brief but exacting detail something well beyond simple loss of individuality, loss of identity, that are part and parcel of too many interpersonal relationships — rather, her protagonist undergoes a process of complete and total self-negation the likes of which, I again say without hesitation, have never been committed to the page in so harrowing a fashion.

She meets a guy. Things seem okay at first, he’s reasonably attentive and seems accepting of her flaws and foibles, but in truth he’s silently cataloging her insecurities for later use as wedges to metaphorically burrow into her and, ultimately, hollow her out. He moves in to her place with little or no discussion and bringing, figuratively and literally, almost nothing of his own. His small talk turns to cutting insults. His facile flattery morphs into neglect — emotional, physical, sexual. And, of course, when pressed, he makes it known this is all her fault.

Somewhere along the way, subtly at first of course, the body horror starts. Something is wrong with this young woman’s physical form, strange changes are happening to her, clearly and inarguably an external manifestation of her inner turmoil. It’s hinted, as these grotesque transformations escalate, that maybe it’s only happening in her mind, but you know what? Even if that’s the case, it’s no less real. Her thoughts, her feelings, her wishes, her self — they’re all slipping away. And the darkness that’s been bleeding in from the margins is starting to consume her being even as she becomes utterly unrecognizable to herself.

For some, I would suppose, interjecting the visceral horror of bodily mutation (let’s just call it what it is) into a psychodrama plenty terrifying enough on its own terms may seem too heavy-handed, too obvious, but don’t doubt for a moment that thanks to the quiet power of Lannes’ graphite illustrations and the absolute precision of her sparse text that it not only works, it’s absolutely essential to the proceedings. The changes undergone increase in their severity even as the imagery is increasingly taken over by shadow, until shadow becomes complete and inescapable blackness, the woman whose loss of everything she was, is, ever will be subsumed from without precisely at the moment she’s consumed from within.

Needless to say, comics (or, if we want to be precise about this book’s format, illustrated short stories) don’t get more soul-shattering than this, but Lannes also understands, intuitively, the seductive power of the darkness she’s both channeling and utilizing here, so much so that there is most certainly an uncomfortably seductive quality to her horrifically beautiful (a contradiction in terms only on paper, I assure you) drawings — and this slow seduction becomes a key component of the narrative itself, the ease with which one is drawn into the dark communicating so much of our protagonist’s fracturing, shattering state of mind that less-confident cartoonists would rely, no doubt clumsily, on the text to convey.

Whether by accident or design, then, it’s entirely fair to say that Lannes’ aesthetic choices do something more than tell a story : they approximate, as closely as possible, the experience her character is going through within the mind of the reader, her deft deployment — in an artistic sense, and for entirely different purposes — of many of the same techniques of the emotional and psychologically manipulative abuser lulling us, with something less than our consent but no actual resistance on our part, into what we know, from the outset, will be as far from a “happy ending” as one can possibly imagine.

There’s absolutely no way that the crafting of John, Dear could have been anything other than a fucking terrible experience — it’s too powerful, too searing, too authentic not to have come from a place of deep understanding, and for the act of exorcising it not to have left its own series of intensely-painful scars. It certainly leaves plenty of ’em on the reader. And yet, as portrayals of abuse go, they don’t come any more realistic this. Putting work this personal and this demanding in terms of its execution out into the world for others to experience is an act of bravery in and of itself, one for which Lannes is to be not just applauded but thanked — but don’t for a moment go into it thinking that just because it’s one of the most unforgettable, and frankly best, comics in recent memory that it’s anything other than one of the most challenging, unsettling, even devastating. This book is the abyss that doesn’t just gaze back — it sucks you in and swallows you whole. Even, yes, when you read it with all the lights on.

 

Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

And so we come to the most unusual of our year-end “Top 10” lists, this one looking at my ten favorite “special mentions” of 2018, and I suppose that some explanation is in order : simply put, a lot of great publications that came out of the comics world this year were, for lack of a better term (at least a better term than I can think of, you may fare better) “comics-adjacent,” in that they were by  cartoonists, but took the form of illustrated short stories, collections of drawings, etc. Also included in this category are publications about comics — ‘zines, scholarly works, and the like. Now then, with those ground rules in place —

10. Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South By Jeff Zenick (Self-Published) – One of the better pure illustrators working today, and one whose work consistently flies under the radar, Zenick’s collection of drawings based on mug shots found online of folks run afoul of the law below the Mason-Dixon line is his most conceptually “tight” offering to date, and captures the essential character of the desperation that leads to/ends in criminal activity far better than “mere” photographs ever could. A sobering, straight-forward look at the underbelly of society that most would rather pretend doesn’t exist.

9. Journal Of Smack (2018) By Andrea Lukic (Self-Published) – Lukic’s semi-regular journals are always fascinating, but her latest is like a “found object” from another time, place, and possibly even dimension, ostensibly telling an illustrated vampire story that circles back in on itself frequently — but what’s really going on here is something much deeper and more profound : preconceptions of what words and pictures can and even should do in juxtaposition are challenged head-on, shaken up, and re-arranged in new, unique, and even unsettling ways that are hard to explain, but undeniably powerful and instantly memorable.

8. Folrath #2 By Zak Sally (Self-Published) – The second installment in Sally’s ongoing prose memoir of his early-’90s “punk years” is no mere exercise in nostalgia for its own sake, but rather a gripping and evocative attempt to reconcile what one’s part even means — and how it never really leaves us, even when we think we’ve left it behind. The publication format here is also innovative and aesthetically pleasing, using riso printing and an “old-school” typeface to give the proceedings a wistful look that amplifies the tone of the writing.

7. But Is It — Comic Aht? Edited By Austin English (Domino Books) – Oh, hell yes ! The newsprint comics ‘zine had been in desperate need of a comeback for some time, and English is just the guy to resuscitate it. A thorough and comprehensive interview with the great Megan Kelso and an examination of the Mexican comics underground by Ines Estrada are the standout features to this critic, but the other reviews and articles are all tops, too. A true and obvious labor of love that you’re guaranteed, in turn, to love yourself.

6. Dog Nurse By Margot Ferrick (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of those rare “total packages” that has it all in terms of both form and content, Ferrick’s mysteriously heartwarming tale of a precocious but alienated child and her hired caretaker’s attempts to reach an understanding with her is lavishly illustrated, but equally lavishly presented between fastened hard covers on rich, French-fold pages. Well and truly stunning in every perspective.

5. Nocturne By Tara Booth (2dcloud) – Perhaps the closest thing on this list to a traditional “comics” narrative, Booth’s undeniably charming tale of a consequential evening in the life of a dominatrix, told by means of sequentially-arranged gouache paintings, is incredibly fluid, to be sure, but also far more conceptually dense than it may appear at first glance, incorporating themes of sexual identity, communal living, complex (and perhaps unhealthy) relationships with food, and body-image acceptance into a non-alienating, visually literate, wordless narrative. Some books leave a mark — this one casts a spell.

4. Accursed By Daria Tessler (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of the most gorgeous riso publications ever made, Tessler’s mind-bending visual interpretations of accompanying ancient Greek and Roman curses is a rich exploration of the timelessness of the urge for revenge rendered in a gorgeous and vibrant color palette that literally makes the already-“trippy” images achieve a kind of near-sentience as they draw you into a world unlike any other ever depicted. The die-cut cover with embossed ink and fold-out center spread will blow your mind if the contents haven’t already.

3. John, Dear By Laura Lannes (Retrofit/Big Planet) – A harrowing tale of emotional and psychological abuse manifesting itself outwardly in the form of physical deformation and mutation, Lannes has taken “body horror” to a whole new level by infusing it with social relevance — and her richly-black graphite renderings will not only take your breath away, but literally suck it right out of your body. I defy you to read this and not feel absolutely hollowed out afterwards.

2. The Woman Minotaur By Sara L. Jackson (Self-Published) – Sumptuous, beautiful, and horrifying all at once, Jackson’s painted short story revolving around themes of parental abandonment and alienation is as emotionally and psychologically charged as it is visually ambitious. A supremely self-assured work that establishes its own rules with fearlessness, integrity, and ingenuity, this is an entirely new form of artist-to-audience communication that goes right for the heart and twists it mercilessly.

1. Why Art? By Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics) – Asking, and answering, its titular question by means more allegorical than expository, Davis’ deceptively “simple” illustrations and sparse, economic narrative shave off anything and everything superfluous and consequently “mainline” her story directly into readers’ metaphorical veins with an immediacy so nonchalantly assumed that its sheer power is immediately and automatically taken as a given.  A work of singular and undeniable genius — and that’s a word you will only catch me using when it’s not only warranted, but frankly inescapable. Davis makes her strongest argument yet for being the cartoonist laureate of our times.

So there you have it — ten great comics that weren’t exactly comics. Next up is our final list of the year, focusing on original graphic novels. That goes up tomorrow night, and may surprise you just as much for what isn’t included on it as what is. How’s that for a teaser?

Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

With the advent (ha! Get it?) of December, the time has come, once again, for our annual look back at some of the finest comics the year had to offer. We’ll be skipping the usual offerings for the next week or two around here, including the Weekly Reading Round-Up column, since re-reading is your humble emcee’s top priority for the next little while. A run-down, then, of the six different categories I’ve broken things down into is in order, and please keep in mind that I’m deliberately eschewing calling any of these lists a “best-of” simply because I haven’t read everything that’s out there — and who could? Think of these, then, as lists of the ten best entries in each category that I’ve read. Or my own personal favorites. Or something. Anyway, “brackets” are as follows:

Top Ten Single Issues – Pretty self-explanatory, I should think : this list focuses on individual comic books and minis, either stand-alones or part of an ongoing series.

Top Ten Comics Series – This list is designed to spotlight comics that are produced on some sort of production schedule and honors those of consistently high quality. Open-ended, ongoing series and finite mini-series both are eligible, the only qualification is that each series has to have released at least three issues over the course of the past year, since if they’ve only put out two, either one of them would represent 50% of said comic’s total “output” and should, by rights, probably land in the “Top 10 Single Issues” category.

Top Ten Contemporary Collections – This list will focus on collected editions of material previously released either as single issues or in anthologies, etc. English-language translations of Eurocomics, Manga, and the like are also eligible in this category. I have a fairly generous definition of “contemporary,” and have set an admittedly quite arbitrary “cut-off date” of the year 2000, since anything that presents work from the previous century will fall into the category of —

Top Ten Vintage Collections – Same rules as above, just for pre-2000 stuff.

Top Ten Special Mentions – This is a new one I’ve never done before and is somewhat amorphous by definition, so by way of explanation I’ll just say it’s a list designed to highlight my favorite comics-adjacent releases of the year : work that’s done by cartoonists but doesn’t fit the traditional sequential-art format, or else publications that are about comics, but aren’t actually comics themselves.

Top Ten Graphic Novels – Last but certainly not least, this category has fairly strict limitations : every work in it is one which was designed from the outset to be presented in the “graphic novel” format, and cannot have been serialized anywhere else, either in print or online, since those sorts of things are already covered by the “Top Ten Contemporary Collections” designation. These are long-form, wholly original works only.

Are we good? I think we’re good. So let’s jump right in with the Top Ten Single Issues list —

10. Goiter #3 By Josh Pettinger (Self-Published) – The strongest comic yet from one of the most promising “emerging” cartoonists out there, I’m glad to see Pettinger moving away from his Clowes/Ware roots and find an authentic perspective all his own with this superb story about a young woman in love with — a chronologically-displaced floating head? Moving, smart, authentic, and deeply emotive work.

9. Rookie Moves By November Garcia (Self-Published) – Probably my favorite autobio cartoonist working today is at her best in this fun and funny (not to mention endlessly charming) mini focused on her transition from star-struck fan girl to “professional” comic artist — who’s still a star-struck fan girl. One of the most earnest and refreshingly un-pretentious reads of the year.

8. Rust Belt #4 By Sean Knickerbocker (Self-Published) – We’ve heard a lot this year about comics that capture the current MAGA-poisoned “cultural moment,” but for my money none succeeded so well as the fourth issue of Knickerbocker’s ongoing “solo anthology” series, as he casts his increasingly-sharp observational eye on the dual personalities of a guy who’s an average enough husband at home, and a rising right-wing social media “star” in his spare time. You know the people in this comic — and while that’s a damn depressing thing to consider, it makes for utterly compelling reading.

7. By Monday I’ll be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage By Laura Lannes (2dcloud) – The most exemplary collection of diary comics I had the pleasure to read in 2018, Lannes’ subtle and self-deprecating tone and smooth, fundamentally inventive cartooning chart the doomed trajectory of a Tinder “romance” in both real-time and a gorgeous, over-sized format. Remarkably restrained for something so personal, this one sticks in your mind long after     closing it.

6. From Crust Till Dawn By Sarah Romano Diehl (Self-Published) – The second chapter in Diehl’s ongoing memoir of her time as a pizza parlor employee unfolds with a dreamlike quality and ease that brings out the character, rather than the nuts-and-bolts specifics, of each instance it portrays — the end result being a joyously unique reading experience quite unlike anything else.

5. Cosmic BE-ING #6 By Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham enters her post-Angloid era with this awesomely bizarre and entirely singular look at the lives of the residents of her “Clown Castle” in the sky who will creep you out and crack you up in equal measure as they point out the absurdities of wage labor, group living, and other everyday taken-as-given situations large and small. The most assured effort yet from one of the most unique talents in cartooning today.

4. Tongues #2 By Anders Nilsen (Self-Published) – The most ambitious (thematically and visually) ongoing narrative in comics ups the mystery even as things come into view more clearly in its various and for-now-disparate plotlines. Gorgeously illustrated and colored, viscerally written, this is a true masterpiece-in-the-making that demands and rewards rigorous re-reading and examination.

3. Perfect Discipline And Unbending Loyalty By Tommi Parrish (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – In the space of just a couple of short years, Parrish has assumed comics’ mantle as the most astute chronicler of the emotional landscape of human interpersonal relations, and in this sumptuously-presented work they disarm, dissect, and ultimately empower their characters as they navigate generational differences with the same delicately understated honesty as they bring to their intuitive mapping of physical, sexual, and even mental intimacy between couples. Staggering, heartfelt, supremely confident work.

2. Frontier #17, Mother’s Walk By Lauren Weinstein (Youth In Decline) – Weinstein’s love letter to her newborn child is a testament to the power of motherhood and cartooning both as it traverses the eternal moment just before a new life enters this world in an elliptical fashion that encapsulates past, present, and future in an ever-present “now” that circles back in on itself and never ends — as is most certainly true of this comic itself, which breaks every pre-conceived notion still remaining as to what the medium is capable of. There’s been a lot of “hype” around this book recently — including from yours truly — but rest assured : none of it captures the full magnificence of all it contains, of all it is.

1. Now #4, Edited By Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics) – The most significant ongoing anthology in well over a decade, Reynolds puts it all together in this issue (with plenty of help from cartoonists like Roman Muradov, Julian Glander, Nathan Cowdry, Matthias Lehmann, Walt Holcombe, Tommi Parrish, and Brian Blomerth, among others), more than living up to the “mission statement” in his book’s title, but going one step further in the process — this isn’t just where comics are at now, it also shows where they’re going in the future. The best, most varied, most effectively curated (I term I try not to use at all, but employ here with absolute precision) assemblage of sequential art you’re going to come across in this year and probably just about any other, this is a shot across the bow, a challenge for everyone to “raise the bar” and make comics that are as confidently-realized as those on offer here.

Whew! Okay! That’s quite the run-down! And we’re just getting started! 2018 really has been an amazing year for comics, and narrowing down each of these lists to just ten “winners” has been a very difficult task indeed. I feel bad about some of the books that didn’t “make the cut,” but I’m very confident in everything I settled on, as well as the specific places they earned. I hope you agree with my selections, sure, but more than that — I hope you’ve found some great new comics to add to your “must-buy” list!

Next up — Top Ten Ongoing Series! I’m aiming to have that list up tomorrow!

By The Time You’re Done With This Review You’ll Want To Read “By Monday I’ll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage”

The work of cartoonist Laura Lannes is as raw as it gets. Rendered in tightly-framed watercolors that leave plenty of negative space for readers to fill in the “blanks” (both physical and metaphorical) for themselves, her 2dcloud-published graphic memoir By Monday I’ll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage is something a whole lot more than the “simple” 30-day collection (covering the period of February-March, 2017) of diary strips it appears to be on the surface : it’s an examination not only of an emotionally turbulent period in the life of a 25-year-old New Yorker, but of how the process of putting these experiences down on paper allows its author/subject to regain control over the narrative of her own life — at precisely the moment when the parameters of said life seem entirely out of her control.

If you’re gonna “play” the autobio “game” successfully, sharp observational skills are indispensable, and Lannes certainly has hers honed to the point of glinting — she’s painfully frank in her depiction of others’ foibles, sure, but crucially she doesn’t spare herself, either, as the darkly humorous title of this spiral-bound collection (printed and bound with the level of exacting care we’ve come to expect from Perfectly Acceptable Press) makes plain from the outset. And yet, while you could be forgiven for making the assumption that self-pity is the main course on offer here, in truth it’s barely even on the menu.

To my mind, at any rate, that — in addition to just plain smart cartooning choices — is what gives Lannes’ work a “leg up” on most memoirists. Is everything in this book told from her own point of view? Absolutely. But that point of view isn’t afraid to lay its own process of becoming absolutely bare in front of readers. As Lannes navigates the perpetually-confused (and, from where this old married guy is sitting, perpetually confusing) landscape of Tinder dating, as she briefly re-connects (unsuccessfully) with an old flame, as she runs away from New York (to Mardi Gras, no less) with a guy who’s every bit as “on the rebound” as she is, as she dabbles her toes tentatively into involvement with local democratic socialist groups, as she falls for a guy named Francesco alarmingly quickly (and she knows it) only to ultimately add him to her mental list of guys who have let her down (he demands exclusivity from her while not being willing to return the “favor” — asshole), as she drifts from one doomed freelance gig to another — her honest thoughts and reflections are front, center, and immediate, but so is the internal debate within herself about how she’s going to present all this, to memorialize it, not only to herself, but to a readership composed largely of more or less complete strangers.

Following her quasi-breakup with Francesco, Lannes’ life takes on the character of the sort of downward spiral we’ve all seen before and perhaps even lived through ourselves, and while there are times when it seems like she can’t catch a break no matter what — the batteries in her vibrator are even dead! — she never loses sight of how inherently ridiculous, perhaps even pathetic, the search for love, sex, and romance (and she’s acutely aware of how interconnected all three are) is, and she also never drifts too far from her inherently (is it too soon to call it “trademark”?) self-deprecating wit. Is this all life and death stuff? It certainly seems to at the time to Lannes (as it would to most of us), but hey — that doesn’t mean you can’t see the funny side of it all, even while it’s still happening.

By the time all is said and done, Lannes’ down-to-Earth-and-maybe-even-beneath-it editorial POV becomes downright necessary, as she’s forced to open up the lines of communication with Francesco again to let him know that she may have, unbeknownst to her at the time, passed chlamydia on to him. There’s no “easy” way to delineate a scene like this, but Lannes at least manages to make it bearable to read, even if living through it was obviously anything but. You’ll cringe, but you won’t be able to stop reading — and you’ll find yourself bummed out that it’s all over when you get to the 30th, and final, page. Even if you’re somewhat relieved.

Names are changed to protect the “innocent” here, as you’d no doubt expect/hope for — hell, one of the characters is even (appropriately) given a dog’s head — but I’d still put By Monday I’ll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage right up there with the most unflinchingly honest memoirs the comics medium has ever (no exaggeration) produced. It’s uncomfortable, it’s harrowing, it reads very much like a work produced from a place of compulsive need — and it’s hilarious. The overall experience of reading it can leave you feeling exhausted, at least mentally and emotionally (hell, maybe even physically, depending on what kind of shape you’re in), but you’ll walk away from it feeling damn impressed indeed. Maybe even something akin to floored.

Besides, what more do you need from a comic than sex, socialism, and self-reflection?

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Okay, admittedly $25.00 is a lot to pay for anything, much less a comic book, but By Monday I’ll Be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage is an unforgettable read, and is sumptuously-produced, to boot. It can — and should — be ordered directly from the cartoonist at https://lauralannes.bigcartel.com/product/by-monday