Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

At last we reach the finish line with the sixth and final of our “Best of 2021” lists. This time up the category is TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS, which I hope is fairly self-explanatory : new and original works in the so-called “graphic novel” format that have not been previously serialized, at least in anything like their entirety, either physically or digitally. There were many excellent books to choose from this year, and narrowing it down to my ten favorites was a pretty tough task. Here’s what I came up with :

10. Penny By Karl Stevens (Chronicle Books) – While not a “graphic memoirist” per se, Stevens always finds inspiration for his lavishly illustrated stories pretty close to home : this time out it’s his cat’s turn to have adventures ranging from the cosmic to the banal and everything in between. Seriously, if this book doesn’t move you, then check your pulse — you may not have one.

9. Generous Bosom Part 4 By Conor Stechschulte (Breakdown Press) – The twists and turns finally all converge in this final installment of Stechschulte’s opus of mindfuckery. A perfect ending it’s not, but that doesn’t preclude it from being an eminently satisfying one. Oh, and hey — soon to be a major motion picture! But that’s another story for another time, and one that’s already more convoluted than the books it’s (partially, at any rate) based on.

8. Mycelium Wassonii By Brian Blomerth (Anthology Editions) – Comics’ modern master of psychedelia follows up his book on the early days of acid research with a book on — the early day’s of ‘shroom research? Hey, give Blomerth credit : he knows both what he likes and what he does really well. An educational, informative, and gorgeously-drawn “trip” well worth taking.

7. Lure By Lane Milburn (Fantagraphics) – An ambitious science fiction epic that never loses sight of its humanity, Milburn’s exploration of life on Earth and its fictitious “twin” planet may be set in the future but is still as timely as they come, offering as it does cogent commentary on such things as the so-called “gig economy,” the exploitation of the natural world, Amazonian hyper-capitalism, colonialism, and the billionaire space race. One of those rare comics that not only lives up to, but exceeds, all the “buzz” surrounding it.

6. Super! Magic Forest By Ansis Purins (Revival House) – A “kids’ comic” for the kid in all of us, Purins’ vividly imaginative world leaps off the page and into your heart with the kind of unforced charm that simply can’t be faked. All that wonder and mystery and significance you left behind when you grew up? It’s all right here, waiting to welcome you back.

5. Death Plays A Mean Harmonica By Steve Lafler (Cat Head Comics) – American ex-pats decamp to Oaxaca to live the good life, only to find themselves surrounded by vampires, intelligent fungi, and yes, even Death him/itself — but hey, maybe it’s still the good life after all! Blending the personal with the outrageous with the outrageously funny as only he can, Lafler has created one of the finest works of his storied career.

4. Nod Away Vol. 2 By Joshua W. Cotter (Fantagraphics) – The second “chapter” in Cotter’s science fiction masterpiece-in-progress abruptly shifts focus yet still manages to build on all that’s come before. Written and drawn with more passionate intensity per page than perhaps anything else out there, this is the embodiment of a true magnum opus — and while I can’t claim to have the first guess as to where it’s all headed, I do know that I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Neither should you.

3. Chartwell Manor By Glenn Head (Fantagraphics) – Powerful, poignant, and painful, Head’s memoir of abuse at the hands of a schoolmaster is just as much about the parental denial that allowed it to continue and the lasting psychological scars that never really heal as it is about the perpetrator, and as a result this stands as one of the most thorough-going examinations of survival in the history of the medium. When they talk about “comics that will be discussed and debated for years to come,” this is what they mean.

2. From Granada To Cordoba By Pier Dola (Fantagraphics Underground) – The full-length debut of a masterful new voice, Dola’s existential downward spiral balances humanism with nihilism (don’t even ask me how that works), visual literacy with the aesthetics and approach of a true “outsider.” In a sane and just world, this would be the year’s most influential comic. Here’s to hoping — just don’t expect to find much hope in the pages of the book itself, okay?

1. The Domesticated Afterlife By Scott Finch (Antenna) – A decade in the making, Finch’s breathtakingly unique book is a seamless marriage of the literary and the visual in service of telling a multi-faceted but absolutely singular story with an equally singular worldview. Not exactly an anarchist anti-domestication text per se, although such sentiments surely inform it, I would argue that it’s more an emotive exploration of what is lost when the conscious and unconscious are bifurcated and dreaming itself is colonized by pedestrian rationality. Featuring a complex and enthralling set of contrasting symbols and mythologies, this is no mere exercise in “world-building,” but rather an act of reality creation that stands as a testament to the transformational power of imagination.

And that, my friends, is a wrap — not only on these lists, but on Four Color Apocalypse for the year 2021. I’ll be back in early January (that’s next week, so it’s not like I’m taking some long “break” or anything) with the first reviews of the new year, but until then, if you want more, there’s always my Patreon, which I update three times per week and can be found by going over to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

The Allure Of “Lure”

“There is another world. There is a better world. Well, there must be.”

Or so The Smiths — and, a few years later, Grant Morrison — would have us believe, but if there’s one thing the billionaire space race has taught us, it’s that these assholes are looking to commodify everything, Earthbound and otherwise, in their dick-measuring contest writ large. One of the most remarkable things about Lane Milburn’s new full-length hardback graphic novel, Lure (Fantagraphics, 2021), though, is that he started work on it some five years ago, long before Bezos, Branson, Musk, and their ilk decided the stars were their destination.

Okay, there’s one wrinkle in that it is Earth’s fictitious twin planet of Lure (hence the title) that the story’s Amazon stand-in has set its sights on for capitalist exploitation, but other than that you’ve gotta say that this is an eerily predictive slice of sci-fi, in addition to being a thoughtfully-written and gorgeously-rendered one. Our main protagonist, Jo, and her friends/co-workers are very much like people you and I know (if you’ll forgive the assumption that your social circle isn’t entirely dissimilar to my own) in that they’re artists making ends meet by voluntarily conscripting their creativity in service of “The Man,” but the stakes here are higher than than those attendant with, say, building a sculpture garden on a Silicon Valley corporate “campus”: if their 3-D holographic show goes off as planned, the world’s business and political leaders will be “all in” on a plan to let the Earth go to rot and kick off a new era of economic imperialism all over again under the unsullied (for now, at any rate) skies of our largely-aquatic neighbor world. So, yeah — it’s fair to say Milburn’s cosmic playground is equal parts eminently relatable and decidedly less so.

As you’ve no doubt picked up on, the allegorical value of this book is in no way subtle, but Milburn eschews heavy-handedness by making it a character study first and foremost — in fact, if there’s one (admittedly minor) criticism I’d level here it’s that the fluidity and ease with which he draws us into these people’s lives is almost too successful for its own good. The pacing is naturalistic, unhurried, even bordering on the lyrical for the first 95% of the story and then, bam! We get an out-of-left-field ending that’s admittedly effective, but nevertheless both sudden and open to all kinds of interpretation. I’ll be the first to admit that the more I thought about the story’s final act the more I liked it — and the less rushed it seemed in retrospect — but at the same time, I could’ve happily spent another hundred pages (at least) immersed in the various trials, travails, and tribulations of Jo and her friends.

Still, it’s always better to leave readers wanting than it is to overstay one’s welcome, and Milbun is first and foremost a highly intuitive artist : he knew when he’d said all that he had to say with these characters and proceeded to give his narrative a jarring, but entirely apropos, finale rather than belabor any of the points he was making. I respect the hell out of that even if it means a more concise book than I might have wanted personally — but seriously, how many readers other than myself are going to consider 192 pages to be “too short” in the first place? I don’t know much, it’s true, but I know when I’m standing alone.

One thing everybody is going to love about this comic, though, is the art. As lush, rich, and expansive as the planet upon which it takes place, Milburn’s illustrations are absorbing enough to lose yourself in for hours, and likewise add a layer of intrigue to the proceedings in that there are instances in which he deliberately obfuscates or even omits certain facial features for reasons that are known only to him, but offer fertile grounds for speculation for us. Again, repeated explorations of the material offer some clues — I would advise readers to pay special attention to the mythological backstory of the planet’s creation — but when it comes to firm answers, both narratively and visually, it’s going to be on you to divine a number of them for yourself. Fortunately, the art is so gorgeous that you’re not going to feel like putting the book down, anyway.
Also worthy of note is Milburn’s decided lack of cynicism, which is remarkable when dealing with subject matter that offers so damn much to be cynical about. The triumph of, as my friend Aaron Lange recently put it, “Starbucks neoliberalism” is a depressing enough prospect to be staring in the face, as is the grim political reality that rabid, conspiratorial, racist and fascist nationalism is being widely embraced as the most viable pseudo-“response” to it, but Milburn seems to hold out hope that people can still throw a wrench in the works and prevent, to one extent or another the “Alternative 3” (speaking of conspiracies)-style future the captains of industry are planning. I don’t know if I share such an outlook myself, but Milburn made me believe in its possibility, if not probability, for at least a moment, and shit — in these dark times, that’s a solid achievement in and of itself.

As is Lure on the whole. As we make our way inexorably toward the end of another calendar year and the onslaught of “Top 10” lists come part and parcel with it, you can expect to see this book near the top of many of them.

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Lure is available for $29.99 directly from Fantagraphics (fuck Amazon) at https://www.fantagraphics.com/products/lure?_pos=1&_psq=lur&_ss=e&_v=1.0

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 world 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