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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DeForge-ing Ahead : “Brat”

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s “YouTube stars.” The idea that sub-moronic loudmouths such as Pewdiepie and Logan Paul have made small (or maybe not-so-small) fortunes by broadcasting a whole lotta nothing from their living rooms makes even the most vacuous “famous for being famous” celebrities, such as the Kardashians, seem like legit talents in comparison.

Which, for the record, they’re not, but damn — that’s where we are today. But in his latest Koyama Press graphic novel, Brat, Michael DeForge — not so long ago hailed as something of a “phenom” himself, though certainly not without justification — asks a question that, at least to my knowledge, no one has in an any sustained, thoughtful manner to date : what happens when these social media celebrities get older?

Notice I don’t say “grow up,” because his uber-narcissistic protagonist, former juvenile delinquent Ms. D, has no idea how to do that and honestly isn’t even capable of grasping the concept : her “struggle” is to remain relevant into what passes for her “dotage” while a new generation that’s been, God help us, raised on her antics comes both of age and after her unofficial title as “prankster par excellence.”

Hanging on by your fingertips while looking you’re not even breaking a sweat is a tough thing, I suppose, but it’s not like Ms. D is even supposed to be in any way a sympathetic character : a number of her stunts (which you will get a chuckle out of in spite of yourself) have exacted a very heavy price from the people on the receiving end of them (maybe we should just be honest here and call these folks what they are — victims), but at the same time it’s hard to actively despise her simply because she’s so vacuous, so incapable of actual self-reflection (as opposed to mere image management)  in any meaningful sense of the term, that she’s really more a caricature than anything else, and therefore probably not worth the time or effort that the mustering of anything like a deeply-felt emotional reaction like contempt requires, regardless of how richly she clearly and obviously deserves such.

Don’t, however, take that to mean that following her exploits for 150-some pages isn’t a worthwhile investment of your time, though, because hey — this is still DeForge, and all wise readers presumably already subscribe to a “where he goes, I follow” philosophy. Really — has he ever let us down?

Of course not (at least to date), and while this story’s tone is necessarily more sharply satirical than prior efforts, it’s still a bright, vibrant, endlessly inventive visual marvel, DeForge’s trademark physically-abstract forms here delineated in bright pastels in front of largely stripped-down (at times even entirely absent) backgrounds and taking on a jaw-dropping level of fluidity and borderline-incoherence that the cartoonist ingeniously works into the narrative itself, the transformations of people and their surrounding environments being not just a continuation/physical manifestation of the “fourth-wall-busting” inherent in Ms. D’s first-person narration, but a legit “reality” within the storyline itself, observed and consequently reacted to by readers of and “co-stars” in the book alike. The less specifically stated the better, here, it seems to me, so as not to spoil the myriad surprises that await, but I will say this much — be ready for your jaw to drop open good and wide on several occasions.

As far as meditations on “where we’re at” culturally go — something of a trend, maybe even the trend, in comics these days — this book is about as incisive as they come, but without the seething disdain for the “now” and those navigating within its confines that plagues the more heavy-handed (and left nameless out of respect) efforts of others. DeForge clearly has a lot to say about celebrity, aging, performance art, the fine line between rebellion and just making an ass of yourself, self-absorption, and the principal of escalation, but he lets his art do the talking and never slips into lecture, harangue, or soliloquy. He’s out to thread any number of tight needles here, and the deftness with which he consistently manages to do so is very impressive indeed.

All told, then, Brat is both a damned good read and a damned important one, but never feels the need to draw attention to itself as either. DeForge is in full command of his numerous and significant cartooning skills and doesn’t seem constitutionally capable of creating work that is anything less than extremely relevant to both the human and societal condition. He’s spoiling us with one unassuming masterpiece after another, and this may just be his most confident, accomplished one yet.

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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!