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!

Alex Nall’s “Lawns” : Piercing The Veil Of Small-Town Wholesome Americana

“In a town like Twin Peaks,” the promotional advertisements for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks : Fire Walk With Me informed us, “no one is innocent.”

Of course, when his foolishly-lambasted masterpiece (for my money, at any rate) hit theaters back in 1992, Lynch had already made something of a career out of exposing the dark underbelly of the American myth — whether he was shining an uncomfortable light on the shadows cast by the apple pie exterior of small-town life in Blue Velvet, or exploring the corrosive pressure applied by pop culture iconography on the socially-and-economically-marginalized in Wild At Heart, he had staked out a viewpoint (to say nothing of a distinctly surreal style) all his own by the time he finally guided us through Laura Palmer’s harrowing final days.

Cartoonist Alex Nall, by contrast — who mines certain similar thematic veins in his latest Kilgore Books graphic novel, Lawns — has been busy plying his trade (and plying it very well, as anyone who’s read my glowing reviews of his two previous efforts, Teaching Comics Volume One and Let Some Word That Is Heard Be Yours — or, better yet, read the books themselves — already knows) in a wholly different environment up to now, either relaying his direct experiences as an arts educator, or filtering his exploration of the life and work of the great Fred Rogers through the lens said experiences have afforded him. He is, in other words, in very unfamiliar territory here — but you’d never know it.

Ostensibly set in the mid-1990s for reasons that frankly escape me, Lawns is one of the more tight and concise ensemble-cast dramas you’ll ever read, nearly all principal players enjoying roughly equal “screen time” in this tale of how a contested mayor’s race rips off all the scabs a once-closely-knit community thought were healing up just fine. Most of the characters are “local eccentrics” of the sort Twin Peaks excelled at portraying, but Nall’s narrative is decidedly “non-Lynchian” in its structure, playing things pretty straightforward throughout, barring a couple of well-timed flashback sequences.

Likewise, his illustrations tend toward the economical and lithe, superbly conveying a generous amount of visual information with precisely the right amount of effort required. The book neither reads nor looks particularly “flashy” or stylized, but it’s done exactly right — Nall has hit on the exact approach necessary to do his characters, and their intersecting stories, justice. These are infinitely complex people, all hiding any number of secrets and past traumas, but who can somehow fit (though not always comfortably) into what appears, on the surface, to be a typically “folksy” tapestry of American life.

Until, of course, that tapestry begins to unfurl.

All things being equal, I should make it good and clear that Nall’s story could just as easily be happening today as 20 years ago, so timeless are the economic and social concerns that he touches upon, but from where I’m sitting it’s not providing a snapshot of either an uncomfortable past or present that is his primary goal here — rather, again like both Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart, this is about “everyday” people navigating through complex situations outside of their experience (and, in some cases, their pay grade), only to find something true and redemptive within their lives that is worth hanging onto and may even be enough to keep the darkness at bay. No one is exactly the same by the time their various “arcs” coalesce into something like a “conclusion,” but they’ve all found a place that will work for them, and that they have a greater appreciation for based on all they’ve been through. It takes a deft touch to pull all this off and not make it feel like a hammer bashing against your skull, of course, but Nall is nothing at this point if not an absolute master of the subtle, communicating more by means of one facial expression or slight quirk in movement than many of his peers are able to over protracted sequences of belabored panels. It takes a damn good cartoonist to make what he does look this easy — especially when you understand that it’s anything but.

I dunno, at this point simply referring to Nall as a “talent to watch” seems like selling what he’s been able to achieve this quickly in his career far too short. He hit the ground running with a distinctly earnest vision of how he wanted to approach his work in his very first comic and has never looked back (or to his sides, or to — wherever), and with Lawns he translates that near-flawless methodology into an entirely new (for him, that is) realm of storytelling. It starts with an overgrown yard and a dog bite — it ends up being about, well, almost everything that matters. A supremely confident, fully-realized work that engages both heart and mind from its first page to its last.