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




A Quiet, Unassuming, Monumental Memoir : Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer”

Suffused throughout with a light touch that can best be described as genuinely tender, Maia Kobabe’s Lion Forge-published Gender Queer : A Memoir comes across as anything other than the seismic shift it is in terms of consciousness-raising — and maybe that’s what makes it one in the first place. Eschewing the polemic, Kobabe opts for the conversational and, as such, eir (Spivak pronouns — look ’em up if you must, I confess that I had to) story is universally accessible, but in no way represents a “dumbing-down” of its complex subject matter.

I’ll be the first to admit that as a straight white male I may just be the last critic on the planet qualified to comment on the story of a person slowly coming to terms with eir identity as a non-binary, asexual person, but by the same token, it’s folks in my shoes most in need of absorbing and understanding this material, and so — yeah, the perspective of “Joe Average” (or “Ryan Average,” I guess) probably does matter here, even if I only say so myself.

Charting a path from childhood to adulthood with entirely unforced naturalism, Kobabe stitches together a chronology of becoming on the one hand, acceptance (most crucially self-acceptance) on the other, the latter most often trailing the former by a significant chunk of time. There’s doubt, there’s confusion, there’s question after question that can’t be adequately formulated for years, much less answered — prepare to run the emotional gamut, but to never feel like you’re anything less than a privileged observer to a remarkable life.

The scripting finds a happy medium that avoids the self-pitying, open plays for sympathy of a Craig Thompson while also going nowhere near the clinical dispassion of a Chester Brown, establishing Kobabe as a genuinely unique voice within the field of autobio/memoir, an achievement that would be remarkable enough for anyone dipping their toes into long-form graphic storytelling for the first time, but Kobabe goes one better by displaying an intuitive understanding of how to involve readers without resorting to any sort of manipulation one way or the other, showing confidence in eir own story and eir ability to tell it that any number of cartoonists take years to arrive at. It’s amazing how involving a person’s story can be when they refuse to either romanticize it or downplay its significance.

Of course, it would all fall on deaf ears — or maybe that should be blind eyes? — if the art weren’t than up to the job of conveying multi-faceted, highly personal information in a manner as subjectively honest as it is emotionally resonant. Kobabe — with color assistance from sister Phoebe — strikes precisely the right balance on this front, as well, alternating between traditional page layouts and imaginative, free-flowing, organically-designed images that accentuate the states of mind, even states of being, conveyed in any particular scene. For a narrative necessarily focused so frequently and so intently on grappling with confusion, there’s not a panel, not a page in this book that even the most inexperienced comics reader can’t visually absorb and understand precisely how to read, no matter how unconventionally realized.

Even still, any work such as this needs to be expressive, as well, of course, and once again Kobabe comes up trumps there, showing a command of facial emoting and body language that is something far more than merely “impressive.” Whether illustrating the excitement of discovering facebook’s greater selection of gender pronouns or grappling with the idea of “coming out” to eir art class (which still hasn’t happened by the end of the book, closing things on something of a melancholic note), subtleties in expression and stature convey at least as much as Kobabe’s choice of words. I believe “holistic” is the term I’m looking for here.

If it seems I’m being too effusive with my praise in this review, I assure you that I’m absolutely not — this is wholly remarkable work done by an artist in full command of eir remarkable skills that I struggle to find any sort of flaw in. Non-binary cartoonists have been doing some of the best memoir work in all of comics in recent years — think L. Nichols’ Flocks if you require any further proof of this assertion — but even by the lofty standards already established in this still-nascent field of storytelling, this is, as the kids say, “next-level” stuff.

In all honesty, I’m as disappointed as anyone that the “new,” Oni-merged iteration of Lion Forge probably won’t have much space for works of this nature — the editor who commissioned this book has already been laid off — but at the same time, it’s hard not to be grateful that, even if only for one shining moment, they were willing to take a risk on a project as wholly remarkable as Gender Queer, which not only tells a vital and necessary story, but also hails the arrival of a major, perhaps even transformational, new cartooning talent.


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