Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Original Graphic Novels

And so we’ve arrived at the final “best of” list of 2020, the Top 10 Original Graphic Novels, which basically just means full-length original works specifically designed as such, or put perhaps more simply : self-contained graphic novels that weren’t serialized anywhere, in print or online, previously. Let’s not waste any time —

10. Desperate Pleasures By M.S. Harkness (Uncivilized) – Not so much a sequel to Harkness’ earlier Tinderella as a response to it — the party’s over, welcome to the hangover that is adulthood without a road map. Illustrated in a breathtaking array of styles and told in a manner both frank and expressive, this is the contemporary memoir against which all others will be judged for the next few years.

9. The Puerto Rican War By John Vasquez Mejias (Self-Published) – Hey, fair is fair : my Top 10 Single Issues list featured a couple of comics that were single issues formatted as books, and here we have a full-length graphic novel formatted as a hand-sewn, newsprint comic book — and damn, what a comic book it is. Mejias’ woodcut illustrations are positively astonishing, and his story of Puerto Rican revolutionaries standing up to American colonialism in 1950 is gripping and poignant. Oh, and there’s an assassination attempt on Harry Truman thrown in for good measure, too. Comics get no more compelling than this.

8. Portrait Of A Drunk By Olivier Shrauwen, Florent Ruppert, And Jerome Mulot, Translated By Jenna Alan (Fantagraphics) – A “dream team” of Eurocomics talents delivers a pirate’s tale unlike any other awash in allegory, tawdriness, and existential angst — but with a comic touch? A black comic touch, to be sure, but nevertheless, this is one of the most unforgivingly funny books in a long time — with a heavy emphasis on the “unforgiving,” of course.

7. Familiar Face By Michael DeForge (Drawn+Quarterly) – An ever-shifting, mad world is the perhaps the last place one would expect to find an entirely coherent meditation on identity, longing, and alienation, but here it is regardless. When everything and everyone is always being “upgraded,” can any place truly be called “home” — including our own bodies and minds?

6. Paying The Land By Joe Sacco (Metropolitan Books) – The undisputed master of comics not only as journalism, but as cultural exploration, returns with his most compelling work in years, chronicling the theft of the entire way of life of the Dene people of Canada’s Northwest Territories. Supremely well-illustrated and emotively recounted, if you’re looking for a book that will both educate you and stick with you long after reading, look no further.

5. Kent State : Four Dead In Ohio By Derf Backderf (Abrams) – Rising above the usual historical accounting of one of our nation’s darkest hours by setting it firmly within the broader social and cultural milieu of Ohio circa 1970 and by taking the time to let us really get to know all the people whose lives were cut short by National Guard bullets, Backderf has delivered a career-defining work here that will likely be required reading in many a college history course in the future. This book is also, sadly, more relevant than ever given the resurgence of our nation’s deep political divisions.

4. Bradley Of Him By Connor Willumsen (Koyama Press) – The most formally exciting and innovative book of the year bar none, Willumsen’s rumination on fame, celebrity, identity, and excess utilizes the page — and I mean the whole page — in consistently enthralling and surprising ways. This is a cartoonist who knows precisely where he’s going and what he’s doing, and keeping up with him is challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

3. MOAB By Mara Ramirez (Freak Comix) – Every year there’s a book that comes completely out of left field and knocks my socks off, and this year that honor goes to Ramirez’s remarkably full-length debut. Part travelogue, part landscape study, part relationship chronicle, and part indigenous peoples’ rights treatise, this is a work that is literally about a thousand times more fluid, even poetic, than any description can really convey — as well as being the most emotionally resonant story I read all year. I’ve seen the future of comics, and their name is Mara Ramirez.

2. Breakwater By Katriona Chapman (Avery Hill) – Authentic, lyrical, and humane, Chapman’s mid-life interpersonal drama is a must-have for anyone who’s ever loved someone who suffers from mental illness as well being a subtle rumination on what “growing up” even means for someone who’s already done it. Self-care and self-preservation always come at a cost — this is a book that really makes you feel it, in addition to being one of the most beautifully-illustrated stories of the year.

1. Boston Corbett By Andy Douglas Day (Sonatina) – A historical epic unlike any other told over three volumes, this isn’t really “about” the man who killed John Wilkes Booth (at at least claimed to have done so), it’s about the perseverance of belief, especially fanatical and uncompromising belief, in the face of anything and everything — among other things. Our perspective as readers is constantly changing, but the characters themselves remain almost admirably steadfast — even when there’s no solid ground, or even solid sense of reality, to set foot on. Except when they don’t, but please don’t tell them that. The most ambitious work of the year is also, undeniably, the most singular — and one that will be dissected, debated, and discussed for years, if not decades, to come.

Are we done? I think we’re done. Let’s do it again in 12 months, shall we?

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Review wrist check – Zodiac “Sea Dragon Deployant” black dial model, going “un-deployant” (or something like that, I dunno) by riding a Finwatchstraps “Vintage Suede” strap in green.

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. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

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

 

A Pretty Impressive “Stunt”

Annie Koyama’s “farewell tour” wouldn’t be complete without one more release from Michael DeForge before Koyama press closes up shop, and while his latest, Stunt, may not qualify as a “book” so much as a stretched-out (in terms of its page count and physical dimensions) Chick tract, it’s certainly as thematically and conceptually dense as any of this one-time-ingenue cartoonist’s previous works, and further reinforces the almost giddily-obsessive nature of the psychosexual and physical terrors that are congealing and coagulating into something very much like a core “portfolio” of concerns at the heart of his overall artistic project.

Roll call : duality, the amorphous nature of identity, bondage and submission (both mental and physical), Cronenbergian body horror, fame and celebrity, overwhelming sexual need, personal apocalypse, and fluidity as the only constant.

Among other things, of course, but those are the big ones.

Rendered in blacks, whites, and blues that emphasize shape and motion while leaving stark identifiers such as features and faces deliberately ill-defined, as a study in art reflecting and consequently amplifying narrative, DeForge puts on a veritable fucking clinic with this brisk and disarmingly brusque read, our nameless stuntman protagonist voluntarily — hell, contractually — becoming the Hollywood star he doubles for gelling into reality before our unbelieving eyes with a kind of visual erudition that stands in stark contrast to, yet yins to the yang of, the disarmingly matter-of-fact scripting that disguises its sharp precision under a clever, and thin, membrane of sparse, clinical austerity. You know damn well there’s a lot going on in this comic — it never pretends otherwise — but it communicates its multi-faceted complexity in a manner that’s in no way taxing to your patience or perceptive faculties.

Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s criminally-underappreciated Enigma mined much of  this same territory with a heavy dose of post-modern literary absurdism added to the mix, but DeForge’s shorthand take on it provides for a more immediate and visceral, if less “widescreen,” exploration of it all, although I may be dating myself with that reference — still, in for a penny, in for a pound, so let’s toss in this lyrical nugget that’s even older, but still sums up the proceedings here pretty nicely : “we walk and talk in time, I walk and talk in two — where does the end of me become the start of you?”

No, I’m not 50 yet, but it looms closer with every passing year, and with that in mind I have a kind of strangely intuitive understanding of why the movie star in this story wants to commit “career suicide” — chances to  start over, to re-define one’s existence on one’s own terms, are all too rare, and his need to take that chance, paired with our ostensible “hero’s” need to assume the identity being left behind and take the “suicide” part of things more literally, is perhaps the most unique and painfully honest expression of the Cartesian principle you’re likely to come across in any medium.

Simple co-dependence is minor league stuff compared to the dynamic being limned herein, and indeed would almost present as a healthier alternative to the surrender of self that DeForge confronts us with, and about the only actual analogue I can draw is Genesis P. Orridge and Lady Jaye’s ultimately tragic, but at the same time desperately human, attempt to both transfigure and transform themselves into the same person, yet one that would also have been a product of their union — a third “life” that, theoretically, was to be both of their beings combined.

And yet even that is almost a more comfortable notion than the relationship portrayed in Stunt, given that Genesis and Lady Jaye, unconventional as their methodology was, still had continuation and survival, by means of a kind of de facto “procreation,” as their ultimate goal. DeForge offers no such concessions to the future, and presents us instead with need for its own sake — perhaps even “squared,” if you will, into the need to need. To fully subsume oneself into another, to end who you are, to sacrifice the entirety of your being and yet to still need to give up more? I wouldn’t call that love, that’s for damn sure — but I would call it the basis of perhaps the most challenging comic I’ve read this year.

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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. Your support there not only keeps things going, it also ensures a steady supply of freely-available content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, I’d be greatly appreciative if you’d take a moment to have a look and, if you feel so inclined, subscribe.

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2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Collected Editions (Contemporary)

Let’s keep plugging away here, shall we? This time around on out year-end wrap we’re looking at the top 10 collected editions of 2017, with a slight change to my previously-announced methodology : rather than placing everything “Modern Age” (roughly the 1980s) and beyond in this category, I’ve narrowed it to collections of comics published post-2000, so that everything being referred to as “contemporary” at least comes from, ya know, this century. Apart from that, however, the category remains a fairly broad one : TPB or hardcover collections of single issues, webcomics collections, diary comics collections, and anthologies all fall into what I consider to be “collected editions” — in other words, a lot of this stuff is more or less brand new, and many critics who don’t share my OCD affliction might even call some of these “graphic novels.” I’m not gonna do it that way, though, because my list of the top 10 graphic novels is going to be just that : original graphic novels constructed from the outset to be published as a single volume.

That’s it for the particulars, then, apart from a reminder that there may be a couple of tail-end-2016 releases that make their way onto these lists because they hit shops too late to be properly reviewed by yours truly last year, and that each book will be summarized quickly — these are not proper “reviews” or anything of the sort. Okay, let’s do this!

10. Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero by Michael DeForge (Drawn+Quarterly) – DeForge revealed a more whimsical and even, dare I say it, “fun” side in these single-page webcomics, and they read very cohesively as a collection. Absurdist humor, an idiosyncratic protagonist, and a decidedly revisionist take on “funny animals” combine to form a typically singular (there’s a contradiction for you) DeForge reading experience.

9. Sunburning by Keiler Roberts (Koyama Press) – Roberts’ autobio webcomics are a stark look at life’s challenges and its subtle beauty and they balance the joys and drudgeries of parenting with a quiet and unassuming honesty that’s entirely un-sentimental, but not in any way clinical. In addition, her simple-but-detailed illustration draws the eye in to notice every little detail, and there are a lot of details to notice. It’s always a pleasure to see her work collected in print, and this is her strongest book yet.

8. A Process Of Drastically Reducing One’s Expectations by Gabby Schulz (Phase Eight Publishing) – If you know Schulz, you know that this collection of his diary comics won’t be an “easy” read — he doesn’t spell out the particulars of his life with any great specificity, but you can see his mental, physical, and financial deterioration playing out before your eyes in a manner as relentless as it is nonchalant. So, yeah, this is no “easy” read — but it’s a compelling and engrossing one, no doubt about it.

7. Band For Life by Anya Davidson (Fantagraphics) – These chronicles of a multi-species punk band in a sci-fi future Chicago sure seem an awful lot like those of people I knew in my 20s who were in bands, so I guess that means the themes here are timeless, indeed. And Davison herself reflects the never-say-die ethos of her protagonists : after fleeing Vice’s digital sweatshop, she continued posting these strips on her Tumblr page, and finally saw them through to completion in this magnificent hardback collection.

6. Boundless by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn+Quarterly) – Breathtaking illustration, ethereal themes, and naturalistic visual storytelling combine to make this collection of Tamaki’s strips a supremely memorable read, one that analyzes her female progatonists’ complex relationships with themselves, their bodies, their hopes and fears, and their self-image with disarming candor and incredible grace. Stirring, soul-searing stuff.

5. You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis (Koyama Press) – This travelogue composed of diary strips and single illustrations documenting Davis’ bicycle trip from her parents’ home in Arizona to her adoptive hometown of Athens, Ga. doesn’t chain itself to anything like a traditional narrative framework, instead providing an interpretive, experiential look at a journey every bit as philosophical, even spiritual, as it is physical. Another resoundingly resonant work from someone making a very strong case to be considered the cartoonist of her generation.

4. Mirror Mirror II , edited by Julia Gfrorer and Sean T. Collins (2dcloud) – The second volume of 2dcloud’s annual(-ish) anthology has a loose “horror” theme at its core, buy beyond that editors Gfrorer and Collins really do give their contributors free reign to explore the subject in wide-open, entirely unique ways. And what a group of contributors they’ve got! A unique mix of folks we see a lot of working in other genres (Simon Hanselmann, Josh Simmons), folks whose work typically does tend toward the horrific (Gfrorer, Noel Freibert, Clive Barker — yes, really!), and folks we just plain don’t get to see anywhere near enough of these days (Al Columbia, Renee French, Dame Darcy, Carol Swain, Nicole Claveloux), all presented in the kind of uncompromisingly high-quality package we’ve come to expect from this premier “boutique” art-comics publisher. This is a book overflowing with both dark beauty and artistic integrity.

3. Providence Acts Two And Three by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – I’ve raved enough about this series over the last couple of years — but goddamn, it’s so good that I almost feel as if I’ve undersold it. Suffice to say, Moore and Burrows have created what  is undoubtedly the smartest, most richly-detailed, most multi-layered horror comic in history. Act Two collects issues 5-8, Act Three finishes the story off with issues 9-12.

2. True Swamp Book 2: Anywhere But In — by Jon Lewis (Uncivilized Books) – Finally collecting Lewis’ two “bumper-sized” issues from the early “aughts,” his second go-round with the foul-mouthed (but hyper-intelligent) Lenny the Frog and his bog-dwelling friends is, if anything, even more funny, smart, and endearing than the first, and far more visually accomplished and experimental. Matching the wit and charm of Walt Kelly’s Pogo with a distinct underground sensibility, there has simply never been another comic like True Swamp — and, chances are, there never will be again. I believe “sublime” is the word we’re looking for.

1. Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn by Gerald Jablonski (Fantagraphics Underground) – At last presented in the oversized format that these dense, information-packed (both visually and verbally) strips pretty much demand, this near-as-we’re-ever-likely-to-get-to-definitive collection of Jablonski’s work showcases his singular genius in a manner his small-but-dedicated legion of fans could only have dreamed of until it finally happened. Utterly unlike any other comics ever even conceived of — much less done — by anyone else, this is a hermetically-sealed universe unto itself where the rules of what “should” or “shouldn’t” work not only don’t apply, but simply don’t matter. Jablonski reigns supreme in his kingdom of one.

Okay, looks like that’ll do it! Again, this list seemed like a daunting thing to put together until I started doing it, and then it all came together almost on its own, as if it were just being channeled through me. Freaky, huh?

Next up : my picks for the top 10 collections of vintage (as in, pre-2000) comics released in 2017. Hope to see you back here in a couple of days for that one!