Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

Next in our year-end lists we come to TOP TEN SPECIAL MENTIONS, a “grab-bag” category I came up with a few years back to encompass everything adjacent to comics that isn’t comics “proper” per se — so in short we’re talking about art books; ‘zines, books, and scholarly works about comics and/or cartoonists; non-comics projects by people who usually do comics; and, perhaps most nebulously, sequentially-illustrated narrative works that don’t quite fit the standard operating definition of comics in that they don’t contain word balloons, thought bubbles, or in-panel caption boxes. Read on and all will, hopefully, become clear :

10. Bubbles, Edited By Brian Baynes (Bubbles Publications) – Baynes’ “independent fanzine about comics and manga” had another strong year, and if there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate about this publication above all else it’s the unabashedly fannish tone the editor and writers bring to the table. There’s not an ounce of cynicism to be found in these pages — everyone who contributes to this ‘zine literally loves the medium, and it shows.

9. Please, God – Help Me Be Normal! By John Trubee (Mucus House) – A long-overdue comprehensive collection of Trubee’s “Ugly Men” drawings, plus other miscellany, that not only doesn’t disappoint but might even exceed expectations. A gallery of grotesqueries for the ages that is a required item on the coffee tables of all who read this blog.

8. Queen City By Karl Christian Krumpholz (Tinto Press) – A unique narrative and visual history of Denver by the cartoonist who knows it best, as well as a heartfelt lament for the its pre-gentrification glory days. this feels very much like the work Krumpholz has been building toward his entire career. Gorgeously illustrated, evocatively written, and altogether engrossing.

7. Strangers, Edited By Eddie Raymond (Strangers Fanzine) – The old-school print ‘zine that specializes in old-school content branched out a bit in conceptual terms this year, covering more new stuff and featuring tons of original comics by a “murderer’s row” of talented cartoonists. Every time a new issue comes in the mail I devour it from cover to cover, and it always leaves a big, shit-eating grin on my face.

6. Discipline By Dash Shaw (New York Review Comics) – Sure to be a fixture on many a “best comics of 2021” list, Shaw’s meditation on the Civil War, the limits of pacifism, and the human toll of conflicts inner and outer fits the SPECIAL MENTIONS category here in that it is a series of illustrations derived and adapted from letters written at the time. Innovative, exquisitely drawn, and instantly memorable, this is a powerful and poignant work from a contemporary master fully in command of all his storytelling gifts.

5. Francis Bacon By E. A. Bethea (Domino Books) – You can expect to find this on any number of “best-of” list as well — this one included, obviously — but again, due to the absolutely unique nature of Bethea’s work, I’m more comfortable categorizing it as “narrative sequential art.” Deeply personal, evocative, and as always using its subject as springboard to a long-form reverie that unfolds like a vividly-remembered dream, this is, in my humble estimation, Bethea’s most fully-realized and emotionally resonant ‘zine to date.
4. According To Jack Kirby By Michael Hill (Self-Published Via Lulu) – The necessary historical corrective we’ve all been waiting decades for is here, as Hill meticulously combs through thousands of “on-the-record” quotations and statements to present a persuasive and comprehensive case for Kirby as the pre-eminent creative genius in mainstream comics history as well as the sole creator of most of the so-called “Marvel Universe.” An exhaustive forensic examination of the facts written in an engaging, page-turning style that might even make the most hardened of Stan Lee partisans think twice about all the bullshit their guy spewed to line his own pockets and enrich his corporate paymasters at the expense of an undisputed — and still under-appreciated — true artistic visionary.

3. Mysterious Travelers : Steve Ditko And The Search For A New Liberal Identity By Zack Kruse (University Press Of Mississippi) – Without question the finest work of Ditko scholarship ever committed to print, Kruse re-contextualizes the iconoclastic creator’s singular body of work within a more expansive framework that gives new insights into the motivations behind, and philosophy of, one of comics’ most uncompromising auteurs. More than a historical re-analysis, this is a meticulously-researched and eye-opening critical appraisal of some of the most important work in the history of the medium that has only been partially understood by far too many who have laid unearned claims of expertise on it in the past.

2. A Cockeyed Menagerie : The Drawings Of T.S. Sullivant, Edited By Conrad Groth (Fantagraphics) – Years in the making, and clocking in at well over 400 pages, this utterly sublime monograph covers every phase of Sullivant’s groundbreaking career from the 1880s up to the 1920s, and to say no stone has gone unturned and no expense has been spared in its preparation and presentation is an understatement of criminal proportions. This is the prestige release of the year, perhaps of the last several years, and balances historical essays, critical appreciations, and painstakingly-restored artwork to give a full and complete picture of a true artistic trailblazer. Lose yourself in this one and you may find you never want to come out of it.

1. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden By Mannie Murphy (Fantagraphics) – A lyrical melding of the personal, political, social, and historical into one gorgeously expressive and darkly harrowing journey through both the streets of Portland and Murphy’s own life, this is bold and revelatory work that stands with the best art created in any medium this year. A love letter to an idealized vision of a city that never was, a requiem for a dream that nobody even tried to realize, a righteous call to action for a future that is hopefully still worth fighting for — this is a modern masterpiece in every respect that elicited a reaction I wasn’t even sure I was capable of anymore after so many years in the critical trenches : awe.

And with that, I’m taking a short holiday break. The end-of-year recaps will resume next week with my picks for TOP TEN VINTAGE COLLECTIONS, TOP TEN CONTEMPORARY COLLECTIONS, and TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS. Hope to see you then — in the meantime, should you want more of my content for whatever reason, including a couple of posts on my thought processes as I was cobbling these lists together, I humbly remind you that I have a Patreon that I update three times per week and that you can join for as little as a buck a month. Here’s the link :

Michael Hill’s “According To Jack Kirby” : Cutting Through The Fog Of Lies With A Scalpel

I’ll be the first to admit that a historical corrective in regards to one of mainstream comics’ longest-simmering controversies is hardly what regular readers of this small press-oriented blog come here on any given day (or night) expecting to find — but give it up for author Michael Hill, who’s proven with his new (though long in the making) surgically-detailed work, According To Jack Kirby, that he’s as independent as it gets, foregoing the arduous process of shopping his labor of love around to publishers in favor of self-publishing via the auspices of Lulu’s print-on-demand platform. And I’ve gotta say it’s a wise choice because this is, by its nature, an uncompromising piece of scholarship.

If Abraham Riesman poked a million tiny holes in the big lie that was Stan Lee’s fraudulent claim of being the Marvel Universe’s “creator” in the pages of his much-ballyhooed True Believer : The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee, Hill lets the (undoubtedly hot) air out of them and sinks the inflatable Titanic — the damn thing is, though, he’s really just letting the historical record speak for itself. It’s neither his fault nor to his credit that the facts are Lee’s greatest enemy, he’s just taken it upon himself to assemble what amounts, by default, to an air-tight prosecutorial presentation. And as a Minneapolis resident, air-tight prosecutions are something I’ve had a front-row seat to of late, so I know one when I see one.

Is there an implicit bias on the part of the author that’s apparent from the outset here? Well, the book is subtitled Insights Drawn From Interviews Of Comics’ Greatest Creator, so no one need wonder whether or not Hill is a dyed-in-the-wool Kirby admirer, but as those of us who have followed the Kirby/Lee drama over the years can tell you — and as Hill catalogues in one blood-pressure-spiking incident after another — some of the sharpest daggers laid into the backs of Kirby, his family, and his legacy have been wielded by those claiming to be “Jack’s biggest fan.” I’d be tempted to say that their words are coming back to haunt them in this work, but that pre-supposes a level of conscience that many of these folks simply and clearly don’t have — for those of us who do, however, one of the more depressing realizations that Hill’s meticulous chronology makes apparent is how few actual defenders and advocates Kirby had all along. Read it and weep, as they say.

And yet righteous indignation — warranted as it is — really is nowhere to be found herein. Hill’s own writing is no more dispassionate or “neutral” than that of Gary Groth in his (in?)famous interview with Kirby for The Comics Journal (or, to flip the coin, Nat Freedland’s atrociously hagiographic “puff piece” on Lee that ran in the New York Herald Tribune and went some way toward alienating Lee not only from Kirby, but from Spider-Man creator Steve Ditko, as well), true, but if you’re searching for vitriol, you’ll be looking for a needle in a very deep and thick haystack. Hill knows that to indulge in such would only leave himself open to even more criticism from the “Lee Legion” than he’s bound to get anyway, and distract from the forensics that are the backbone of his thesis.

Ah ,yes — forensics. That may seem a curious word to use here at first glance, but I assure you it absolutely applies, for it’s not just on-the-record statements that buttress Kirby’s claim to being the creative driving force behind Marvel — hard physical evidence exists that bears it out. The same, however, can’t be said for his former “collaborator,” who — as Hill demonstrates — appears to have even gone so far as to have at least one phony “synopsis” woven from whole cloth (likely, in the best Lee tradition, by somebody other than himself) in order to shore up his own always-shaky grip on auteurship. In fact, so transparently bogus is the edifice of Lee’s entire shtick that by the time one makes it through to the end of this volume, you’re not sure which is the greater mystery — that he got away with it for as long as he did, or that he ever got away with it in the first place.

The one thing Hill does that Lee never could, though, is “show the receipts.” There are literally decades of them. And we should all be grateful indeed that someone has finally taken the time to sift through them all and set the record straight by means of the record itself. The King has posthumously found the champion he always needed and deserved with Michael Hill — but, even more importantly, so has the truth itself.


According To Jack Kirby is available for $19.99 from Lulu’s website at

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