Everything, Nothing, And All Points In Between : Mike Taylor’s “In Christ There Is No East Or West”

Navigating the present social, political, and economic reality is tough enough — how are you supposed to get your own head together in the midst of all this chaos?

Cartoonist Mike Taylor’s stand-in/protagonist Adam (and, yes, eventually that’s revealed to be as obvious a choice of name as you’re already imagining it to be), our one and only point of reference in and, in a very real sense, entry into, the metaphysical realms beyond and within detailed in the new graphic novel In Christ There Is No East Or West, is tasked with such a challenge and has the added burden of having been conscripted into this impromptu bit of soul-searching by none other than God himself — but not until after he discards his ever-present “smart” phone at The Almighty’s insistence.

Taylor has, of course, long been on a very public journey of self-discovery in the pages of his justly-legendary Late Era Clash self-published comics ‘zine, but whereas that publication generally eschews anything approaching the lofty status of a “grand unifying theory of everything,” this book seems to be every bit as much about the destination as it is about the circuitous paths that lead there. It’s a heady, thought-provoking experience, to be sure, but to Taylor’s great credit it’s also a highly and entertainingly accessible one, and while it might come off as too inherently dismissive to call this “metaphysics for the masses,” that’s exactly what it is — and that’s meant as a compliment.

Gary Groth’s “street cred” imprint, Fantagraphics Underground, has pulled out all the stops in terms of production values here and the fold-out poster that slips around the cover is not only jaw-droppingly gorgeous but sets the tone for the deeply personal, yet undeniably universal, explorations that play out on the book’s generously over-sized pages. Taylor obviously had complete freedom to follow his creative impulses wherever they led him here — not to mention however they did so — and to that end expect a wide, at times even breathtaking, array of art styles that range from the near-abstract to the “scratchy” to the detailed to the downright lush, as well as transitions from black and white to rich, vibrant color and back again depending on where Adam finds himself. A great deal of flexibility is required on the part of the reader to absorb all these transitions, but it’s actually easy enough to go with the flow Taylor establishes here given the organic fluidity of his sparse, borderline-poetic scripting. Words aren’t plentiful, but they’re chosen with care and employed with precise intent, as necessary tools to guide along a process that absolutely must be handled with utmost care.

And yet, there’s an underlying sense of playfulness in the midst of this thick phantasmagorical jungle of the mind and heart, a Zen-like calm at the center that lets you know that even if everything may not ultimately be okay, it’s at the very least going to be whatever it is, and learning to accept that — to accept anything, really — is the key to something more than mere prosaic survival; it’s the key to progress, to evolution, to becoming.

Of course, “Becoming what?” is the natural-enough question that follows on from that, and Taylor offers no easy answers to it, but then nothing about Adam’s “vision quest” (or whatever we want to call it) is what anyone would call easy, from his night spent in a castle made of ice occupied by a grumpy and isolated old-timer who shits something very much like chess pieces (yes, you read that right) to transforming into a plant to attending the strangest dinner party perhaps ever committed to paper — but it’s all rewarding, enlightening, and very frequently quite funny. Even if you’re one of those readers for whom challenging yourself is inherently off-putting, there’s nothing on offer here that’s actively going to put you off — and plenty that will, inexorably, draw you in.

I’m not suggesting that everyone’s “third eye” will open, mind you — although it’s an easily-available option should you wish it — but when Adam meets a version of himself (I think?) that has been through that process, you won’t question it. Taylor has a way of getting you to “buy in” to his idiosyncratic narrative style without a hint of force being applied, and while a lot of that is down to his virtuoso pacing (really, he puts on a veritable clinic in the art and science of it) that gets your toes wet before submerging your feet and going up from there, in truth there is a hidden element to the spell he casts right from page one that speaks to some sort of ability on his part to “tune in” to realms beyond to a far greater extent than he clearly feels he can. I’m loathe to invoke the supernatural as a matter of course — art, for all its majesty, is still a thoroughly practical process, more often than not — but dammit, I know magic when I see it, feel it, experience it, and this book positively oozes it from its paper pores.

If, at this point, it seems this critic is being too effusive in his praise, is frankly gushing a bit too much, rest assured : every superlative I freely offer is entirely earned by this bold, inquisitive, humane, beautifully-illustrated work. In Christ There Is No East Or West is everything I look for in comics : equal parts challenging and accepting, “far out” and grounded, mysterious and easy to relate to, it isn’t “about” anything specifically, perhaps, but encompasses nearly everything within its expansive, but in no way intimidating, scope. And if calling it “magic” is a bridge too far for you sober rationalists out there, fair enough : I’m prepared to happily call it a work of undeniable genius and leave it at that.

Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

So — here we are. The end of the road as far as our year-end “Top 10” lists go and, I would imagine, the one of most interest to the greatest number of readers — my picks for favorite original graphic novels of 2018, emphasis on the word “original.” One of our selections started life as a mini-comic, but was fleshed out greatly to become what it is today, while everything else on the list is a wholly original, not-previously-serialized work, designed and constructed especially for release in the “graphic novel” format. I think that’s about all the preamble required, so pardon me while I roll up my sleeves and type my ass off for a few minutes —

10. Monkey Chef By Mike Freiheit (Kilgore Books) – Our resident “rule-breaker” is first out of the gate, a book whose eventual greatness was hinted at in some self-published minis, but really came into its own when completed and collected between two covers. Freiheit’s autobiographical saga of his time cooking for primates (and their evolutionary descendants) in South Africa while falling in love with someone halfway across the world is possibly the most flat-out enjoyable read of the year, as well as a spectacular showcase for his fully-emerged skills as both illustrator and colorist. If Hollywood’s paying any attention, this would make a great movie — but it’ll always be an even better comic.

9. The Winner By Karl Stevens (Retrofit/Big Planet) – Another autobio book? Why yes, it is, and a downright spectacular one at that, as Stevens shines a brightly illuminating light on “the artist’s life” of underemployment, addiction/recovery, and the never-ending struggle to find both something worth saying and a way to say it. Illustrated in a breathtaking variety of styles with painstaking attention to detail as well as care and emotion to spare, this book is also an understated but deeply moving verbal and visual love poem to his wife and muse. Genuine tour de force stuff in every respect.

8. Poochytown By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)  – The first of three essentially wordless books on this list (take that to mean what you will about my own discipline as a reader — or, rather, lack thereof), Woodring’s latest excursion into the “Unifactor” results in his most harrowing, “trippy,” lushly-rendered, and hilarious “Frank” story yet. So goddamn charming it’s almost painful — but it’s the kind of pain that feels really good and looks even better.

7. I Am Young By M. Dean (Fantagraphics) – Heartfelt, bold, and addictively page-turning — to say nothing of absolutely gorgeous to look at — Dean’s examination of love’s sudden arrival and slow-burn diffusion is virtuoso work, each page replete with raw and honest emotion and eye-poppingly beautiful illustration. Love hurts, yeah, you know it and I know it — but you’re gonna love this book precisely for that fact, rather than in spite of it.

6. Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters By Alex Degen (Koyama Press) – A sci-fi silent movie rendered in lavish and explosive color that’s part breakneck adventure yarn, part dystopian nightmare, and all unique unto itself, Degen throws down a gauntlet here that few should even attempt to pick up, simply because no one else speaks his entirely self-created sequential art language. “Like nothing before or since” is the starting point of this book rather than the end result — go with its flow, and end up somewhere entirely and alluringly unexpected.

5. Lawns By Alex Nall (Kilgore Press) – One of the most exciting new talents to come along in the last few years, Nall “puts it all together” in his strongest work yet, a vaguely Lynch-ian examination of one small town resident’s quest to simply be left the fuck alone to live his life, his way. We’ve been hearing a lot about comics that capture the “cultural moment” in 2018, and while I intend no offense to works like Sabrina or A House In The Jungle, the simple truth of the matter is that, for my money, this book manages that task with much more humor, heart, and deceptive ease than its “fellow travelers” by a country mile. Where and who we are is a deep and profound question, of course, but equally important is whatever answer we come up with. I would submit that Nall hits the nail precisely on the head in that regard, and does so in a manner that almost anyone can relate to.

4. In Christ There Is No East Or West By Mike Taylor (Fantagraphics Underground) – This one arrived late and shook up the preliminary “running order” of my entire list more or less immediately. A metaphysical travelogue of the soul that journeys inward precisely at a time when so many comics are focused outward, Taylor’s book resonates so deeply and so strongly that reading it is akin to an epiphany — and the fact that it boasts arguably the finest production values of the year certainly doesn’t hurt, either. My God, that fold-out poster cover! Even leaving aside the bells and whistles, though, this is about as confident and unforgettable an artistic and philosophical statement of intent as you’re likely to encounter in this medium of ours this year — and possibly for many to come.

3. The Lie And How We Told It By Tommi Parrish (Fantagraphics) – Don’t let the amorphous and eternally transient (in every sense of the word) nature of Parrish’s dual protagonists fool you, this is a story that knows exactly what it’s doing, even if the characters in neither of its concurrent narratives seem to. Picture one raw nerve spread out over the course of well over a hundred pages and getting thinner and more frayed as it goes and you’re getting some idea of what’s going on in this comic, even though it’s ostensibly simply “about” two estranged friends catching up on their lives after a chance meeting, and the book one of them finds along the way. Parrish’s vibrant painted comics certainly have a singular look to them, but it’s the singular way the cartoonist grapples with issues of personal, sexual, gender, and body identity that makes them one of the most ground-breaking and challenging talents to come along in — just about ever, really.

2. Grip Vol. 1 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – A non-stop tidal wave of action, dynamism, and unapologetic feminism that leaves the need for dialogue and captions in the dust, Westvind manages to do something hitherto-unseen in this book by marrying superhero tropes with a salute to working women (particularly those in the so-called “blue collar” trades) to create the most visually stimulating comic of the year, but also one that fully engages the mind and heart as surely as it does the eyes. One of the most powerful comics to come down the pipeline in ages, actually, but ultimately even more notable for how empowering it is. Simply put — prepare to be blown away.

1. Qoberious Vol. 1 (Self-Published) – As thematically and conceptually dense as it is physically slim, the debut graphic novel by the mysterious (and pseudonymous) D.R.T., rendered in a style that most approximates the look of weathered or otherwise-muted animation cels, is something I honestly don’t think this medium has ever produced before : a work that not only reveals new depths with each successive re-read, but literally forces you to interpret and analyze it in entirely new ways. I’ve read it something like 20 times now, and no two experiences have been the same, even if certain themes (physical bondage, alienation from society, from family, and even from oneself) persist. Readers will be poring over this one for decades to come, unable to even verbalize the nature of the feelings it elicits, never mind how and why it manages to do so. An artifact from another, infinitely more artistically advanced, civilization than our own, language is too outmoded a tool for expressing the sheer sense of admiration and amazement I have for what is unquestionably my pick for book of the year.

And so — that’s 2018, boiled down to six lists. I read a lot of other good stuff, as well as plenty of crap, in the past 12 months, and would sincerely like to thank those of you who came along for the ride and made the first year of Four Color Apocalypse a bigger success (in terms of sheer readership numbers, at any rate) than I ever could have possibly imagined. Next week we get back down to business as usual, and start the long, but no doubt enjoyable, process of finding out what the best books of next year are going to be!

Like Nothing Else Before, Or Nothing Else That Ever Will Be : Mike Taylor’s “Late Era Clash” #27

So-called “creative types” have been using their art to process loss since time immemorial, but seldom does it come across as raw, as unfettered, and yet as understated as it does in the pages of issue 27 of veteran cartoonist/illustrator Mike Taylor’s Late Era Clash. Between these two-color riso covers (interior pages also coming off a riso, but in stark black and white) is an unmediated primal scream delivered at whisper-quite volume in response to a silent and gaping void of nothingness, as large and as unfathomable as the universe itself.

Here’s the thing, though : it was all supposed to be something entirely different.

When Taylor started work on this ‘zine in 2015 (it’s just starting to get some distribution today, though) his idea was to throw the veil off his artistic process — and those early pages survive, complete with his ever-present, insistent questioning of his tools, both mental and physical, his wondering both of the point of it all and his ability to make it. Simple, stark, compelling illustrations and accompanying text guide the reader through interior thought processes at the same time as we’re presented with their results, every detail sparsely but eloquently expressed both visually and verbally. The project that might have been still is, then, in its own way — but its context changed radically when one of Taylor’s close friends committed suicide.

Does that mean he altered course completely? Well, yes and no — the premise of a “journey through the artist’s subconscious” continues, but the contents of that subconscious, as well as the imagery it necessarily creates, are entirely 180 degrees removed from what they may have been had tragedy not struck. And yet Taylor’s understated tone remains of a piece with what we’ve come to know — whether we’ve followed his work for years, or just a few pages. He’s shaken to his core, as one would expect, but the essential truth of how he chooses to present his creative output (as well as how he relates its genesis) seems, if anything, to have gained a sense of import, perhaps even of urgency, but not to have been subsumed under a tidal wave of grief. Rather, it’s being channeled though a place informed, but not derailed, by grief. It’s powerful, harrowing stuff that well and truly needs to be experienced to be understood.

What’s perhaps most extraordinary about this book is how it never becomes alienating to the reader, so open and unmediated is Taylor’s exposition of his process and, frankly, his mental state. Nothing seems over-labored, either in terms of text or illustration, and the fee-flowing precision with which all is expurgated herein is just about enough to take your breath away. There’s nothing extraneous on offer, artistically or emotionally, and every pen-stroke or brush line or word chosen is done with an emphasis on pure efficacy and nothing more — because work deeply personal doesn’t need more.

Anyone who’s in the midst of processing a profound loss themselves will doubtless get a lot from Late Era Clash #27, but it’s a privileged look within for anyone interested in being able to relate to a grieving mind and heart. Self-published by Taylor through the auspices of Pegacorn Press, it’s available for the criminally low price of $4.00 from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half Distro site, which is precisely where you should be heading over to right now : http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/late-era-clash-27-by-mike-taylor/