Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

It’s that time of the year — specifically, the end of it. Or near enough, at any rate, for my purposes — those “purposes” being to survey the comics landscape and pick my favorites from 2019’s slate of offerings. As per the norm, I’ll be dividing things up into a veritable boat-load of different categories — top ten single issues (stand-alone comics, or ongoing projects that saw only one installment published in the last calendar year), top ten ongoing series (any comic series or “limited” series that saw two or more issues come out in 2019), top ten vintage collections (books presenting material originally published prior to the year 2000), top ten contemporary collections (books presenting material originally published after the year 2000), top ten special mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books about comics, art books, prose and/or visual works by cartoonists that aren’t exactly “comics” per se, etc.), and top ten original graphic novels (long-form original works never serialized in single issues) — and again, as per usual, we’ll kick things off with the top ten single issues list, with the others following in the coming days. Now, let’s stop dawdling and get down to business, shall we?

10. Kids With Guns #1 By Alex Nall (Self-Published) – The opening salvo of Nall’s first-ever ongoing serial instantly captured my attention with its strong characterization, sublime grasp on inter-generational relations, and oblique-but-effective social commentary, all rendered in his signature updated take on traditional “Sunday Funnies” cartooning. This project could go in any number of fascinating directions, and may or may not be about what its title implies. I’m looking forward to finding out.

9. Expelling My Truth By Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books) – Nobody employs exaggeration and absurdity to tell the “truth” about both modern life and themselves quite like Van Deusen, and in his latest, his trademark satirical wit has never been sharper while his line art has never been smoother. Always a study in contrasts, this guy, but he’s found an inimitable way to make his work’s deliberate and inherent contradictions become its raison d’etre.

8. Rodeo #1 By Evan Salazar (Self-Published) – Debuts don’t come much stronger than this one, as Salazar immediately establishes himself as a cartoonist with a unique perspective and a natural gift for storytelling, his tale of a temporary family break-up as seen through a particularly precocious child’s eyes revealing much more about what’s happening than a straight re-telling of the “facts” of the situation ever could. Emotionally and intellectually arresting in equal measure, and drawn in a confident, non-flashy style, this is one of the best single-creator anthology titles to come down the pipeline in many a year.

7. Stunt By Michael DeForge (Koyama Press) – I struggled with which category to put this one in, but eventually settled on single issues simply because it’s formatted like a Jack T. Chick tract even if it’s priced like a book — it’s also, in true DeForge fashion, imbued with a hell of a lot more philosophical depth than its page count would lead you to believe. A rumination on identity and its voluntary, even necessary, abandonment filtered through his usual lens of homoeroticism and gooey body horror, this short-form offering ranks right up there with the cartoonist’s most confidently-realized works.

6. Nabokova By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – It was such a strong and prolific year for Oshima that choosing a favorite among her works was tough, but in point of fact this is the one where she really “puts it all together” and delivers a treatise on alienation, self-absorption and the fine line between the two that’s every bit as dense as the Russian literature its title invokes — but it won’t, fortunately, take you all winter to to read it. Spellbinding stuff that will leave your head spinning with questions.

5. Castle Of The Beast By Ariel Cooper (Self-Published) – Fear of intimacy has never been delineated as beautifully or as sympathetically as it is in Cooper’s lush, breathtaking visual tone-poem that masterfully blends the concrete and the abstract into a comics experience quite unlike any other. Within a couple of years, this will be the cartoonist everyone is talking about

4. Tulpa By Grace Kroll (Self-Published) – It’s astonishing to see anyone bare their soul and their struggles as frankly as Kroll does in this, her first ever comic, but do so in a manner that brings forth genuine understanding rather than simply playing for sympathy? There are cartoonists that spend their whole careers struggling with what she achieves on her very first go-’round, and her singular art style is as smart as it is innovative.

3. For Real By James Romberger (Uncivilized Books) – The only thing more heroic than Jack Kirby’s characters was the man himself, and in this heartfelt tribute, master artist Romberger relates two harrowing life-and-death challenges The King faced in a manner than honors his style yet is in no way beholden to it. Another unforgettable comics experience by a cartoonist who never produces anything less.

2. Malarkey #4 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Long the champion of neurotic self-deprecation, by tracing the roots of both to her Catholic upbringing, Garcia ups the stakes — and the results — considerably and establishes herself as precisely what previous issues of this comic hinted she might become : the best autobio cartoonist in the business. And maybe even the heir apparent to the great Justin Green? In any case, her moment has well and truly arrived. Now, will somebody get busy collecting all her stuff into a book, please?

1. Tad Martin #7 By Casanova Frankenstein (Domino Books)  – I could say that seeing Frankenstein and his nominally stand-in protagonist matched up with the production values they so richly deserve is a “dream come true,” but this gorgeous, full-color, oversized comic is actually a nightmare come to life — and harrowing, soul-searing life at that. Always an exercise in re-invention, this issue of Tad combines elements of all the previous entries in this sporadic series into a comprehensive vision of nihilism as the only thing worth living for. Other cartoonists will have to fight for a place edging toward the middle — the margins of the medium are already spoken for.

And so we’re off to the races with “Top Ten” week. I’ll be tackling the best ongoing series next, but in the meantime do consider supporting my ongoing work by 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. Please do yourself — and, who are we kidding, me — a favor by checking it out at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

“Malarkey” #4 Establishes November Garcia As The Premier Autobio Cartoonist Of Our Time

I just knew something was up.

When word hit that November Garcia had found a publishing “home” for Malarkey #4, the latest issue of her ongoing comics ‘zine, and that said publisher, Birdcage Bottom Books, was putting it out in full color, I got the feeling that she was through knocking on the door and was ready to fully announce her presence as a cartooning force to be reckoned with. It’s something that’s been building for some time, of course — we certainly don’t hear the Julia Wertz comparisons much anymore, do we? — yet it’s also worth considering that indie comics history is littered with any number of  artists who were plenty skilled at the art of revealing, and sometimes even reveling in, their own neuroses, but who had the stereotypical “pretty good run” for a few years and then moved on to pastures that were hopefully greener, but were more likely graphic arts-related office gigs.

No offense to anyone toiling away in said field, of course — hell, Garcia herself is numbered among them — but when it came time to “up” their metaphorical game or walk away, a lot of people found that proverbial “next step” to be too large a one for them to make. I’m happy to report that’s hardly the case here, if you hadn’t guessed as much already, and that if you’ve been hoping to see a near-quantum-leap forward from the Philippines’ most intriguing cartooning export, that moment has indeed arrived.

How, then, does she manage such a feat while keeping her work firmly planted in the autobio camp? By going deeper and not just relating quirky, relatable “warts and all” tales from her life, but taking a frank look at the “secret origins” of who she is and how she came to be this way. And the root cause of her already-well-documented love/hate relationship with her her own decision-making and the results that it engenders is one that’s always ripe for exploration and exploitation — Catholic guilt.

Oh, sure, it’s not like it’s the animus for all the strips in this book — one could even argue that only one of the stories is “about” it specifically — but even when it isn’t, it often is, and not since Justin Green has its pernicious-if-ultimately-navigable influence been presented with such frankness, sincerity, and humor in the comics medium. If you’re keeping score at home, then, what I’m saying in no uncertain terms is that Malarkey #4 isn’t just good, it’s historically good — and it damn well needs to be if I’m saying it can hold its own with the likes of Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary.

This is, I suppose, the point at which I should re-assure you all that I’m not over-stating things and that I haven’t lost my mind. We get plenty of more non-chalant “a day in the life of —” stuff in this comic, as well, but it’s informed with a new sense of depth and resonance that makes Garcia’s foibles more understandable, her small triumphs and tragedies more sympathetic. We “get her” in a way we didn’t before, and she emerges from the spotlight she’s shone on herself a more compelling figure than ever. Funny what a little self-examination can do.

Everything from present-day mother/daughter relations to clumsy teenage make-out sessions on the couch, veins mined by Garcia plenty of times in the past, is suffused with another layer now, and the end result is stories that would have elicited a “that was cute” reaction previously are now are met with one of “hey, that really rings true” — and I think that’s the case even if you’re not, or never were, Catholic. Some of that is down to the “audience-friendly” nature of Garcia’s art style, sure, but more of the credit should be laid at the feet of her increasingly-confident narrative skills, which are now firing on ally cylinders and avoiding the pitfalls of both self-pity and self-aggrandizement with equal ease.

One of the best strips in this uniformly strong collection tells of the early-career rejection letter Garcia received from Fantagraphics. I think if she submitted her work to them again now, she’d likely receive a much different response.

******************************************************************************

Malarkey #4 is available for $8 from Birdcage Bottom Books at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/products/malarkey-4

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. Joining up is the absolute best way you can support my ongoing work, and I make sure you get plenty of content for your money, so please give it a look at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse