Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Vintage Collections

A new year may be upon us, but we’re not quite done talking about last year here at Four Color Apocalypse. My next “best of” list takes a look at my picks for the Top 10 Vintage Collections of 2020, which is to say : books that collect material originally published prior to the year 2000, including Manga and Eurocomics. Let’s dive right in —

10. Atom Bomb And Other Stories By Wallace Wood (Fantagraphics) – One of the best volumes yet in the long-running EC Artists’ Library series collects the very best of the Wally Wood/Harvey Kurtzman collaborations from Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, and as a special added bonus Wood’s strips with Archie Goodwin from Blazing Combat are included, as well. I love Marie Severin’s colors, to be sure, but this stuff has never looked better than it does here, in pristine black and white.

9. The Pits Of Hell By Ebisu Yoshikazu, Translated By Ryan Holmberg (Breakdown Press) – Grotesque, absurd, and darkly humorous to a degree that’s downright painful, Yoshikazu’s 1981 masterpiece takes the banalities of urban living to illogical extremes and gives no fucks as to who it offends along the way. A strong contender for the most subversive and outrageous book of the year.

8. Stuck Rubbery Baby 25th Anniversary Edition By Howard Cruse (First Second) – The autobiographical (for the most part) magnum opus by the late, great Cruse is more than just one of the great masterworks of LGBTQ comics and literature, it’s an important chronicle of a movement and an era, and a testament to the fact that “coming of age” lasts a lifetime. Arguably the most accomplished and pivotal graphic novel of the 1990s is as relevant today as it ever was.

7. Jack Kirby’s Dingbat Love By Jack Kirby, Edited By John Morrow (TwoMorrows) – Collecting unpublished works by The King Of Comics originally produced during his early-’70s DC stint, there are no capes or tights to be found in the pages of True-Life Divorce, Soul Love, or the further adventures of the Dingbats Of Danger Street, but they all prove beyond a doubt that it was the humanity of Kirby’s work that was always its defining feature. Editor Morrow has gone above and beyond here, though, by including a wealth of scholarly essays, personal reminiscences, and early-stages art pages, as well, making this not just a “must-have” item for Kirby fans, but an indispensable historical artifact.

6. Perramus : The City And Oblivion By Alberto Breccia And Juan Sasturain (Fantagraphics) – Epic in scope yet never anything less than intensely personal, the latest volume in The Alberto Breccia Library is a hard-edged dystopian political thriller that accurately and acutely reflected the tensions and fears of life under the Argentinian military dictatorship its authors were subjected to. This is comics as a righteous act of resistance.

5. The Sky Is Blue With A Single Cloud By Kuniko Tsurita, Translated By Ryan Holmberg (Drawn+Quarterly) – Collecting the very best stories from Tsurita’s remarkable career, this book is, on the one hand, a tribute to a pioneering female Manga artist, but on the other, at least to English-speaking audiences, it’s a revelation. Delicate, surreal, and lyrical, these tales run the gamut from first-person accounts of Tokyo’s 1960s/70s Bohemian subculture to explorations of gender identity to harrowing works informed by the artist’s own fragile health. This is a collection that will stick with you forever.

4. From Hell Master Edition By Alan Moore And Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf) – A lot of people thought the addition of color to Moore and Campbell’s conspiratorial Jack The Ripper epic would ruin the whole thing, but they needn’t have worried : Campbell colored it himself, after all, and rather than subsume his line art, he found a way to complement it. I guess I’ll always prefer it in black and white, sure, but any excuse to re-visit this dense and intricate deconstruction of both Victorian England and the 20th Century is a welcome one.

3. The Man Without Talent By Yoshiharu Tsuge, Translated By Ryan Holmberg (New York Review Comics) – A standout in the history of autobiographical Manga, Tsuge’s unvarnished portrayal of himself as a habitual loser with no hope of changing his ways is both disarming and heartfelt — as well as remarkably raw, even for those of us well-accustomed to “warts and all” autobio and memoir. They saw “write what you know” — well, this is a case of writing and drawing what you know all too well, and turning it into a singularly powerful reading experience.

2. The Complete Hate By Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics) – It seems “Generation X’ will never die, but in point of fact Bagge, who wasn’t even a part of said generation, understood it better than any artist working in any medium. It wasn’t all “grunge” rock and postponing the responsibilities of adulthood — the lethargy, the casual disillusionment with everything, the fucked-up relationships — these are are all present and accounted for here in honest, and honestly hilarious, detail, as well. And the accidental stumbling into their 30s and 40s of Buddy Bradley, family, and friends makes for an astonishingly complete record of a series of fictitious lives that are among the most “real” in the history of the comics medium.

1. Gross Exaggerations : The Meshuga Comic Strips Of Milt Gross By Milt Gross, Edited By Peter Maresca (Sunday Press) – Not only do slapstick humor strips get no better than this, comic strips in general get no better than these meticulously-reproduced selections of Nize Baby, Dave’s Delicatessen, and Count Screwloose Of Tooloose. Sunday Press is setting the standard for vintage newspaper strip reprints, and this gorgeous collection of uniquely Yiddish comedy is not only their best book to date, it’s an object you will treasure forever.

Okay, that’s four lists down, with two lists still remaining. Next up : 2020’s Top 10 Contemporary Collections!

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Peter Bagge’s Libertarian “Credo”

I’ll say one thing for the proverbial “third act” (actually, it might be more like the fourth or fifth) of Peter Bagge’s cartooning career — he picks some interesting subjects for his “graphic biographies.” From Margaret Sanger to Zora Neale Hurston to, now, Rose Wilder Lane, the women whose stories he relates have led full lives full of adventure, controversy, and accomplishment. Whether or not Bagge himself is the best person to be recounting their exploits is an open question — particularly in Hurston’s case — but it’s clear that he views all his de facto protagonists with a tremendous amount of respect, while fastidiously avoiding the easy trap that is dull, hero-worship hagiography.

So, yeah, that’s the good. Or part of it — the other big part being, of course, Bagge’s always-agreeable, “rubbery,” intrinsically eye-catching cartooning which, fair enough, hasn’t really changed or evolved since his Neat Stuff/Hate days, but nonetheless doesn’t feel or look tired or “played out.” He’s got something he does well, and proceeds to go about doing it. No shame in that.

What’s becoming painfully apparent, though, is that he’s creatively stalled out, and I offer as evidence for this assertion his most recent hardcover release from Drawn+Quarterly, Credo : The Rose Wilder Lane Story.

In the minds of many, Lane will forever be mentioned in conjunction with, perhaps even be consigned to a place within the shadow cast by, her “literary legend” mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for those whose politics skew hard toward the libertarian, such as Bagge, she’s one of the most consequential thinkers in American history, a giant upon whose shoulders people like — I dunno, the Koch brothers and Ron Paul stand. If I were her, in other words, I’d be glad not to be around anymore.

Lane’s own achievements in literary fiction and popular biography are rather underplayed by Bagge in the pages of this strictly-formatted book (all three of Bagge’s cartoon biographies have the exact same page count), but her foundational libertarian tracts, as well as the experiences that gave direct rise to her point of view, are afforded plenty of time in the spotlight, and while that’s going to be very appealing to folks who came to know Bagge’s work through the pages of Reason magazine, it’s probably fair to say that the rest of us would rather know more about her travels through the Middle East than, say, her tutelage under notorious right-wing Saturday Evening Post editor Garet Garrett. Like fellow libertarian Chester Brown, it seems that Bagge’s storytelling choices show a cartoonist on the verge of being wholly subsumed within his own narrow obsessions.

Those who haven’t swallowed the free market Kool-Aid might also find Bagge’s borderline-avoidance of one of American literature’s great mysteries — namely, how much of her mother’s work was actually be written by Lane — to be a source of frustration, as well, but I understand that his larger concern was drawing attention to the things that his subject unequivocally and absolutely did write, so I’m willing to give him a pass on that score. He gives hints as to what he thinks may have gone down, but draws no specific conclusions nor makes any bold assertions, and that seems entirely appropriate in the view of this critic. If others consider it a “dodge” of sorts on his part, though, I’ll be perfectly frank and state that I can understand that point of view even if I don’t agree with it.

Which probably isn’t such a bad summation of this particular work on the whole. While Margaret Sanger and Zora Neale Hurston didn’t necessarily consider themselves libertarians as such, Lane did, and therefore there’s no sense that Bagge is trying to fit a square peg into his even-more-square philosophical hole here, but there’s an awful lot of preaching to the choir in this book. For a guy whose work used to have such mass appeal that’s an interesting development, but the trajectory of Bagge’s cartooning — hell, even the trajectory of these thematically-linked biographies — shows an artist whose concerns are becoming more insular and absolutist. A similar path led to the most interesting work of Ditko’s career, but it also topedoed Dave Sim, the aforementioned Chester Brown, and others.

The jury’s still out on whether or not a laser-focused Bagge will make better stuff or worse stuff than he used to, but my hope is that he’ll give the biography format a rest for awhile and tell us where he’s coming from and why rather than using historical figures as mouthpieces and/or human shields for his worldview.

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2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Graphic Novels

And so we’ve arrived at this, our final — and, I’m sure for some, most significant — “best of” list of the year, surveying 2017’s top 10 graphic novels. Quick reminder of our “house rules” : these have to be original works designed from the outset for the GN format, not collected works of any sort, which have already been covered on our contemporary and vintage collected editions lists — and, as always, no real “reviews” here (chances are I’ve reviewed most, if not all, of these somewhere or other online already), just quick summaries of why they’re all so fucking awesome. Okay, let’s do this!

10. Vague Tales by Eric Haven (Fantagraphics) – Long one of the most intriguing, if sporadic, cartoonists around, here Haven constructs a fascinating and surreal overarching story from mostly-silent vignettes featuring barbarians, super-heroes, sexy sorceresses, and monsters that borrow equally from Jack Kirby, Fletcher Hanks, Winsor McCay, and Charles Burns — then he throws it all into a blender, cranks it up to “high,” and serves up something utterly unique, yet somehow eerily (hell, vaguely) familiar. We know all the elements at play here, but have never seen them combined in this fashion.

9. Old Ground by Noel Freibert (Koyama Press) – Amorphous, inky black shapes that coagulate, coalesce, dissemble, and reconstitute themselves at both will and random are the primary visual motifs Freibert employs in this bizarre, humorous, at times even touching tale of gentrification looming down upon a haunted graveyard. Nothing is steady or predictable in this world, every new panel an uncertainty waiting to reveal itself to readers and, it seems, artist — and while a fluid and organic work focused on death and decay may sound like a contradiction at first, it all works superbly and there’s a very real sense that this story is almost making itself up as it goes along.

8. Cartoon Clouds by Joseph Remnant (Fantagraphics) – I thought another art school memoir was the last thing needed in both the “alternative” comics scene and, quite frankly, my life, but Remnant hooked me within a few pages with his crisp dialogue, smart characterization, and meticulous linework — and once he got those hooks in, he didn’t let go. A deliriously authentic “coming-of-age” tale that anyone who’s ever been in their early twenties and at loose ends can relate to easily and completely.

7. Anti-Gone by Connor Willumsen (Koyama Press) – A post-apocalyptic tale like no other that takes dead aim at any number of targets — environmental degradation, hyper-capitalism, youthful lethargy, mass consumerism, virtual realities — and hits them all with stylish minimalist efficiency, Willumsen’s book demands that you spend time looking at it from multiple angles, then trusts you to make up your own mind. Supremely assured stuff that not only requires you to meet it on its own terms, but challenges you to figure out what those terms even are.

6. Spinning by Tillie Walden (First Second) – The “big breakthrough” from an artist who’s been edging toward one for the past couple of years is here, and Walden’s memoir of her formative years — with a special focus on her figure skating education, hence the title — fully delivers on the promise of her previous works, plus interest.  As confident as it is inventive in its visual narrative, this is a powerfully understated shot across the bow from a 21-year-old cartoonist seizing her moment for all it’s worth. If you want to know who’s going to be making the most talked-about comics for the next decade (or more), look no further.

5. Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Bursting with kaleidoscopic imagery and psychedelic imagination, Jacobs’ third graphic novel for Annie Koyama continues his ascent toward the throne of contemporary visual storytellers with more envy-inducing sheer originality than ever. This tale of a washing machine that serves as a gateway for children to a Narnia-esque fantasyland may have universal cautionary themes at its core, but the manner in which they’re conveyed is absolutely singular in nature. Taste the rainbow.

4. Fire!! : The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge (Drawn+Quarterly) – When a cartoonist sells his fucking house in order to finance his work on a project, you know he’s committed to it, and Bagge’s dedication to an authentic recounting of the life of the most interesting, and criminally overlooked, of the “Harlem Renaissance” authors certainly pays dividends to his readers. Did you ever think that the guy behind Neat Stuff and Hate would become the premier graphic biographer of his generation as the “third act” of his already-storied career? I’ll freely confess that I didn’t see it coming, but now that it’s here, I have to admit that I’m even more interested in seeing who Bagge’s next subject will be than I was in finding out whether Buddy and Lisa were going to kill each other or live happily ever after.

3. Everything Is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books) – Long the reigning royalty of diary cartooning, here Bell weaves her daily visual journals into a poignant rumination on the mother-daughter relationship that’s fraught with tension, tumult, toil, and tenderness, the fine line between polite civility and the raw nerves underlying it always mere centimeters away from being crossed, maybe even tripped over. Proof positive that reality is infinitely more complex than anything fiction can dish out.

2. The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond (Drawn+Quarterly) – The second of Pond’s “Imperial Cafe” memoirs sees the dark storm clouds of the 1980s gathering over the heads of her ensemble (out)cast(s), but never fear — the whimsy, the moxie, and the heart we first saw from everyone in Over Easy haven’t gone anywhere — and deep reserves of each are going to be needed in order to get through all that’s coming. Sooner or later life takes us all in different directions, but letting go of people, places, and even stages of existence is never easy, is it? And while Pond’s book may be about coming to terms with endings we don’t want to see happen, we should all be damn glad that she’s still working through the implications of this particular phase of her life some 30 years later — heck, by the time this book is over, you won’t be ready to say good-bye to it any more than she is/was. Most comics are lousy, plenty of comics are good, a few comics are great — but this comic? This one’s pure magic.

1. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) – Most cartoonists show up on the scene with a pretty steep “learning curve” ahead of them, and that’s all well, good, and to be expected — but once in a great while lightning strikes and someone arrives “fully formed.” Never, though, have I seen anyone do what Emil Ferris has done here — break into this still-maligned medium of ours with a work that’s light-years ahead of what pretty much anyone and everyone else is doing. By now you’ve read all the raves about her book and seen it atop more or less everyone’s “best of the year” lists — but, if anything, this sprawling and multi-layered tale that’s part youthful memoir, part mystery, part family drama, part Chicago history, and part love letter to Universal’s “Monster Era” has so far been underappreciated for all that it both represents and is. Consider : 15 years ago the West Nile Virus left Ferris unemployed, broke, raising a child on her own, and temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Today, she’s the author of the best and most important graphic novel of the 21st century (at least to date) — and she drew it entirely with Bic and Flair pens. Permission to be in awe? Fully granted.

And on that note — we’re done here. Go forth and read ye some great comics.