Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Collected Editions (Contemporary)

After this, we’ve got two year-end lists to go — but we haven’t even done this one yet, so perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. My definition of “contemporary” collections is anything published from the year 2000 right up to the present day, and while many of the books that follow may very well fit your — or even my — definition of a “graphic novel,” the fact is that if they were originally published as serialized works, either in comics titles of their own or as part of anthologies, or if the strips presented in these books were culled from sources various and sundry, then this is the category they fall into by my entirely-unofficial rules. And with that, away we go —

10. The Sleep Gas By Chris Cajero Cilla (Fantagraphics Underground) – The spiritual successor to the likes of Doug Allen and Gary Leib, this welcome collection of Cilla’s often tough-to-find short works showcases precisely what he does best, namely crafting tales that are set in a world (or worlds) that are agonizingly familiar yet altogether alien, charming in the extreme but not without an element of the eerie to them. One of comics’ truly idiosyncratic talents who never produces anything less than “must-read” material, so yeah — this is a “must-read” book.

9. Rust Belt By Sean Knickerbocker (Secret Acres) – Nobody has their finger on the pulse of “flyover country” quite like Knickerbocker, and this slim but powerful collection showcases the best of his self-published series, introducing us to the dead end communities full of dead end jobs and dead end lives that find their only release valves via alcohol, opioids, crystal meth, and right-wing political demagogues. Read it and weep, but read it you most definitely should.

8. Rooftop Stew By Max Clotfelter (Birdcage Bottom Books) – It’s about goddamn time. Long one of the funniest, grossest, and most honest cartoonists around, Clotfelter can do everything from post-apocalyptic mutant humor strips to painfully resonant dysfunctional family autobio, and this collection is as seriously overdue as it is seriously amazing.

7. The Follies Of Richard Wadsworth By Nick Maandag (Drawn+Quarterly) – Nobody makes you laugh and squirm uncomfortably at the same time quite like Maandag, and his latest features everything from would-be college professors oblivious to their numerous and painfully obvious shortcomings to randy monks out to “enlighten” their co-ed monastery via decidedly earthly methods. Quite possibly the year’s funniest comic, yet painful to sit through in its own unique way at the same time.

6. Kramers Ergot 10 Edited By Sammy Harkham (Fantagraphics) – The venerable anthology returns in a generously oversized format and with an eclectic mix of the old and the new — from Frank King to R. Crumb to Kim Deitch to Anna Haifisch, it’s a tour through comics’ history and present. The single-strongest entry may come from editor Harkham himself, though, who provides a side-step to his long-running “Blood Of The Virgin” serial that actually turns out to be downright essential. There’s some questionable inclusions in here, sure, but if this turns out to be the end of the road for this title as has been rumored, then it’s definitely leaving on a high note.

5. The Anthology Of Mind By Tommi Musturi (Fantagraphics) – A truly gorgeous and equally truly subversive collection from one of the most multi-faceted talents in comics today, presenting everything from surrealist abstraction to lush painting to computerized pixelation to precise realism, all in service of narrative or non-narrative subject matter that’s never quite what you think it is — to the extent that you can even go into any given strip in this book with a preconceived idea, prepare for it to be dispensed with quickly and replaced with something altogether more wonderful and mysterious.

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4. The Tad Martin Omnibus Edition By Casanova Frankenstein (Spook City/Lulu) – Okay, yes, including this one may be a bit of a “cheat” since the material it presents goes all the way back to the early ’90s, but the strongest section of the book is Frankenstein’s already-legendary #sicksicksix issue from just a few years ago, so —leave it to this one to defy my category classifications as easily as it defies just about anything and everything else. An exercise in constant re-invention, having this entire series (minus its just-published seventh installment) bound together in one volume is a gift from the cartooning gods that none of us deserve. Well and truly beneath the underground.

3. Glenn Ganges In : The River At Night By Kevin Huizenga (Drawn+Quarterly) – Springboarding off simple — or not so simple — insomnia, formalist master Huizenga takes us on a visually and thematically spectacular tour of consciousness, time, and everything it means to be a joyously, deliriously imperfect being. His finest outing with his stand-in protagonist yet, this is a clinic in how to engage audiences with the “heaviest” of topics while alienating or intimidating absolutely no one.

2. Press Enter To Continue By Ana Galvan (Fantagraphics) – Limning the entirety of the shape of things to come, Galvan’s all-too-plausible speculative strips combine innovate geometric design work, boldly incongruous color choices, corporate ownership of humans down to the cellular level, and the data-mining of consciousness itself to present a visually marvelous dystopia that’s as impossible to stop looking at as it is terrifying to consider.

1. Alienation By Ines Estrada (Fantagraphics) – A bold yet subtle exploration of what it means to be human in the digital age, Estrada’s rich graphite illustration looks even more gorgeous presented in the blue ink of this collected edition than it did in the black-and-white single issues, and the color “correction” also adds an extra emotive touch to what is both the most compelling comics love story in some time and a monumental and exhaustively-thought-through exercise in “world-building” — yet for all its narrative and visual sophistication, this book retains the core punk/DIY attitude and aesthetics that its creator is justly lauded for. Brimming with confidence as well as singularity of purpose and vision, this is an instant modern classic of the medium.

Up net we’ve got the top ten special mentions of the year, which is the category for all “comics adjacent” works, but until then please 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. It’s the best value going in original online writing and hey, it at least helps yours truly with a little beer money, so do check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 01/28/2018 – 02/03/2018

Would’ja believe — there wasn’t too much that came in my mailbox this week and it was my LCS that kept me busy with new stuff to read? I swear, it’s true, so let’s have a look at some items of note that I picked up —

For a series/line that prides itself on being “old-school,” Josh Bayer’s All-Time Comics seems in some ways to hew pretty closely to modern publishing norms. Issues frequently ship late, for instance, and their latest release, the bumper-sized (and subsequently more expensive than usual) All-Time Comics : Blind Justice #2, marks the end of the first “season” of the range, with an Image-style gap of three or four months now on deck as they get their ducks in a row for their next not-exactly-an-arc. The script this time out is a Bayer solo endeavor, and frankly not the greatest — the last half of the comic essentially being an extended “bad guy rant” — but it’s still kinda “warts and all”-style fun that will appeal to most Bronze Age babies like myself by hitting all the right nostalgic notes. It’s really down to the art to essentially carry most of the weight here, though, and weird as it sounds to even say things like “Noah Van Sciver inked by Al Milgrom” and “Sammy Harkham variant cover,” that’s precisely what you get here, and it’s every bit as awesome to look at as said phrases would lead you to expect. I have no doubt that the overall ATC project will continue to confound readers looking for some over-arching unifying grand purpose, as it appears that Bayer and co. really don’t seem to have one, but for my money that’s a large part of the appeal of what they’re doing, and even though I’m sure admitting as much will brand me an intellectual simpleton in the minds of many in the critical community, I’m seriously looking forward to seeing where this whole thing goes next, as regulars like Benjamin Marra return to the fold and newcomers like Gabrielle Bell (yes, you read that right!) join in the four-color carnage. Operating in a previously-unexplored middle ground that exists between the polarities of “homage” and “spoof,” these comics are hitting a “sweet spot” for me — even when they run six bucks, as this one did.

It’ll cost you seven, though, to pick up the second issue of Shelly Bond’s Black Crown Quarterly, and to be honest, I think I’ve seen enough at this point. The format’s nice, with heavy cardstock covers and high-quality glossy paper, and to be honest, most of the individual strips range in quality from “pretty decent” (Rob Davis’ “Tales From The Black Crown Pub,” Jamie Coe’s “Bandtwits,” Leah Moore and Nanna Venter’s “Hey, Amateur! How To Be A Badass Goth In Nine Panels”) to “actually quite good” (“Cannonball Comics” by Christopher Sebela and Shawn McManus, who illustrates in a very engaging and eye-popping style quite unlike anything he’s ever done), but the “Cud : Rich and Strange” ongoing by Will Potter, Carl Puttnam and Philip Bond continues to be a dud, the inclusion of more preview pages for David Barnett and Martin Simmonds’ forthcoming Punks Not Dead make me wonder if we’re not going to end up seeing the entire first issue before it even comes out, and the text pieces are either essentially extended promo blurbs for other Black Crown titles like Kid Lobotomy, or else self-consciously “hip” music and travel recommendations. What frustrates most about BCQ, though, is that Bond’s hopelessly dated tastes and aesthetic sensibilities end up making the overall package less than the sum of its parts, and at the end of the day it almost feels like she’s assembling a comic for an audience of one — herself. Unless you, too, are an anglophile whose musical knowledge doesn’t extend beyond the borders of late-’70s UK punk, it’s hard to see the appeal in an anthology this specifically — and rigidly — constructed. Gotta love the pull-out poster featuring the Bill Sienkiewicz cover variant for Punks Not Dead #1, though.

In what passes for a “bargain” this week, five bucks will get you in the door of Justice League Of America/Doom Patrol Special #1, and while it’s not a spectacular read or anything of the sort, I did have fun with this first part of “Milk Wars,” a five-part weekly crossover that sees Gerard Way’s Young Animal line clashing head-on with the “proper” DC Universe. Way and Steve Orlando wrote the script for this book, and thematically and tonally it seems pretty well right in line with what the My Chemical Romance lead singer is doing with his main Doom Patrol series, in that it borrows equally from Grant Morrison’s run on the book and Larry Cohen’s cult-favorite horror/comedy hybrid The Stuff. I don’t know much about the current Justice League Of America line-up, but it appears to be a bunch of B-and C-list characters like Lobo and Vixen, so I guess re-casting them all as a 1950s neighborhood decency brigade is no particular skin off DC editorial’s back, and for the purposes of this story the conceit works — as does ACO’s frenetic, mildly psychedelic art. Perhaps even better than the main feature, though, is the two-page backup strip, which begins what I’m assuming will be an extended introduction to the character of Eternity Girl, who will soon be featuring in her own series courtesy of this story’s creators, Magdalene Visaggio and Sonny Liew. I’m as shocked as anyone to see a cartoonist of Liew’s caliber taking on an assignment for DC, and equally shocked that he wouldn’t just write it himself since that’s how he’s made his bread and butter previously, but if this brief Silver Age-style yarn is any indication, he and Visaggio should make a good team. Anyway, all in all, this comic stood head, shoulders, and udders (read it and you’ll get what that reference is all about) above most “Big Two” fare.

Lastly, we come to Motehrlands #1, the first of a new Vertigo six-parter from writer Simon Spurrier and artist Rachael Stott that proudly wears its 2000AD influence on its sleeve and isn’t afraid to plunge you in at the deep end from the get-go and trust that you’ll catch up — at some point. The action’s pretty breakneck in this one, though, and absolutely absurd, so don’t expect much hand-holding in this wild mash-up of badass-bounty-hunter, “reality” TV, and dysfunctional family tropes, our main protagonist being an inter-dimensional mercenary skip-tracer who lures her mother, a sort of washed-up female version of that “Dawg” guy, out of retirement in order to help track down the third member of the clan, the good-for-nothing brother/son. It’s a fast-paced and — here’s that word again — fun read, and Stott’s art is a nice mix of the conventional and the far-out, so I’m probably gonna stick it out in single issues, but if you missed the first installment, “trade-waiting” probably wouldn’t do you any harm, and will more than likely save you a few dollars.

Okay, I think that’s good enough for now — the small-press stuff was in short supply this week, which is kind of a bummer, but I’ve got a box on the way from Retrofit any day now of some comics I missed out on from the tail end of 2017, so hopefully I’ll have read enough of those books by this time next week to talk about at least some of them in my next round-up column. Hope to see you again in seven short days!

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Single Issues

And so it’s that time of year again : let the debating begin, I suppose, as the various “Top 10” lists begin to hit the internet in earnest, but one thing I think we can all agree on — it’s been quite a year in the world of comics. The underground lost luminaries Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, the mainstream lost Swamp Thing co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson — there have been some tough moments.

But there have also been a number of “highs,” as well — in fact, one could make a fairly convincing argument that 2017 has seen more really fucking good comics published than any year in recent memory. To that end, then, we’re splitting this annual “best of” round-up into several columns, the basics of which will proceed as follows :

The top 10 graphic novels list will be pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a survey of the best original graphic novels of the year. A lot of stuff gets serialized, in whole or in part, online these days, but books that collect pages that cartoonists have serialized in such a manner will be eligible in this category as long as they tell a single, long-form story with something akin to a beginning, a middle, and an end. Collections of serialized short strips, trade paperback collections of single issues and the like, however, will not be listed in this category, since they’ll be going into —

The top 10 collected editions (contemporary) list, which will be composed entirely of previously-published (physically or electronically) works post-Bronze Age, which means anything that collects stuff from the so-called “Modern Age” (roughly the late-1980s right up to the present day) is eligible here. As for the older stuff —

The top 10 collected editions (vintage) list will be the home for all that, with any book and/or periodical presenting material from the birth of the medium up through the aforementioned Bronze Age duking it out for supremacy in this category.

Okay, I hear you say, that’s all fine and good as far as books go, but what of “floppies”? I’m glad you asked, and I came prepared with an answer — one which, believe it or not, actually took a little bit of thinking on my part —

The top 10 comics series list will feature both ongoing and limited series, anything published in single-issue format, with one caveat : annual (or thereabouts) publications like Sammy Harkham’s Crickets or Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats will not be eligible here, nor will any series that saw only two issues published in 2017, since it just seems inherently unfair to have any series that either wrapped very early in the year, or that lots and lots of attention and care are put into, competing against stuff that has to stick to a strict monthly (if not twice-monthly, thanks DC) deadline. These less-frequent publications are, however, eligible in the list that we’ll be starting things off with here —

The top 10 single issues list, which is also the list that mini-comics and one-shots of various stripes will be included in.

Whew! Got all that? Okay, good. I only need to include a couple final caveats, then, before we get started :

1. These will not be lenghty, or even “capsule,” reviews — just quick summations. A good chunk of this stuff I’ve written about in great detail earlier in the year, and some of it I haven’t, but I don’t have either the time or the inclination to get into a “nuts and bolts” analysis of any of it now, and

2. Some stuff that came out very late in 2016 will be sneaking its way onto these lists, not only because I didn’t get a chance to evaluate it before writing my wrap-up columns last year, but also because many comics, particularly small-press comics, don’t find their way into the hands of most readers until a good few months after they’re released due to the fact that they’re not distributed by Diamond to bookstores or comic shops. Self-publishers, especially, often sell their creative wares on personal websites for some time before “catching on” with small-press distros like Spit And A Half, etc. And then there’s the whole situation with My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, which rolled off Korean printing presses in October of last year — but only a small batch of advance review copies made it here to the US before 2016 was out, the rest remaining stuck in the Panama Canal Zone until March of 2017, since the guy who owned the cargo ship they were coming over on had some back bills to pay before he could get his vessel out of hock.

Alright, with all that out of the way, then, let’s get on with the show —

10. I Wish I Was Joking by Tom Van Deusen (Poochie Press) – Van Deusen has long been one of the out-and-out funniest cartoonists out there, and this may very well be his best comic yet since he makes his stand-in “alternative” newsweekly reporter actually likable for a change. Less caustic than his previous works, but much more — dare I say it — charming.

9. Cosmic BE-ING #5 by Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham’s serialized Angloid story has its strongest outing yet, and also its most, believe it or not, down to Earth. Still “trippy” and “New Age” as all get-go, but far more anchored in workaday bread-and-butter concerns than prior installments. Graham’s remarkable illustration skills are really hitting a creative stride now, as well.

8. Trim #5 by Aaron Lange (The Comix Company) – Probably the most compelling issue of Lange’s annually-issued “solo anthology” to date, with intriguing explorations of his family’s German ancestry and a “cool” pastor he knew as a kid among the highlights. Plenty of laugh-out-loud gag strips, as well, most centered around the cartoonist’s art school days.

7. Lovers In The Garden by Anya Davidson (Retrofit/Big Planet Comics) – Some might argue that this is a “graphic novel,” but I’d call it “novella” length at best. Categorize it however you want, though, there’s no doubting that Davisdon’s assured cartooning makes her ’70s-grindhouse-style tale of dope dealers and cops a highly memorable read that holds together way better than most “vignette”-centered comics manage to.

6. Malarkey #2 by November Garcia (Self-Published) – Not just the best thing going in autobio comics right now, but the best thing to happen to autobio comics in years — and Garcia’s slices of life look even better with a little bit of color added to the mix. Possibly the most endearing comic you’ll read this year, which still seems a bizarre thing to say given most of its contents deal with alcoholism and neuroses, but there you have it.

5. Now #1 (Fantagraphics) – Eric Reynolds’ new anthology gets off to a more-than-promising start, with standout contributions from Eleanor Davis, Noah Van Sciver, Kaela Graham, Dash Shaw, and many others. 128 pages of the best in contemporary cartooning for ten bucks? Come on, you can’t do better than that.

4. Crickets #6 by Sammy Harkham (Self-Published) – The most deliriously arresting chapter of “Blood Of The Virgin” yet, as Harkham delineates the immediate, and seemingly complete, ruination of his protagonist’s life in rapid-fire fashion with an intriguing mix of empathy and clinical distance. I get the distinct impression that he doesn’t like Seymour all that much, but feels bad about what he’s doing to him regardless. Visually literate to a degree that’s almost painful.

3. Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket) – The winner of the 2017 Ignatz award for “Best Comic Book,” Passmore’s monologue on the reality of black life in America is concise, superbly-illustrated, and absolutely compelling. 12 pages you’ll never forget — because you’ll be reading them again and again.

2. Providence #12 by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – The conclusion to Moore and Burrows’ “Lovecraft Cycle” is every bit as harrowing and terrifying as the previous 11 issues had suggested it would be, and then some — in fact, it’s downright devastating. It’s well past time to put this series in the discussion of Moore’s all-time best works, and Burrows absolutely pulls out all the stops in bringing the existential horror of the dawn of this dark new age to life. A bona fide masterwork.

1. Songy Of Paradise by Gary Panter (Fantagraphics) – Okay, I admit this one’s a bit of a cheat given that it’s an oversized (to put it mildly) hardcover boasting a $35 cover price — but for all that, it’s still only 32 pages long, so that makes it a “single issue” in my book. And a damn engrossing one at that, as Panter finally puts his Paradise/Purgatory trilogy to bed with its most deceptively “simple” (as in, it’s anything but) segment yet. Rest assured, though, even if you haven’t read the other two books, this is an accessible, engaging, thought-provoking work that reveals more of its hiding-in-plain-sight secrets with every reading. A truly seminal effort from one of the most important cartoonists of his generation — or any other.

Trust me when I say you can’t go wrong with any of these comics, and I’m very comfortable with the “running order” I’ve placed them in. There were some damn close contenders that nearly made the cut, but time will tell if I get a chance to do an “honorable mentions” listing once the main event’s all said and done. One thing at a time, as they say. Speaking of which —

Next up I’ll be looking at my picks for the top 10 ongoing series of the year, so I’ll definitely look forward to seeing you good folks back here in a handful of days for that one. In the meantime, if you’ve got anything to say about this list, don’t be shy! What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I completely miss out on? Chime in and let me know!

This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 10/15/2017 – 10/21/2017

Plenty to look at this week, so let’s dive right in —

Berserker #1 is a recent sci-fi anthology from Breakdown Press in the UK that seems to be aiming to combine the sensibilities of 2000 A.D. with those of American “alternative comix.” Edited by Tom Oldham and Jamie Sutcliffe, it’s an impressive 64-page volume with a high-gloss cover that’s printed on heavy paper stock and is roughly evenly split between comics and text pieces. On the comics front, far and away the strongest strip is Anya Davidson’s “The Night Timers In : No Rest For The Wicked,” the first installment of a topical and dynamic long-form series that successfully splits its attention between genre action and “real-world” social and economic concerns, while Jon Chandler (with colorist Sarah-Louise Barbett) contributes an interesting “virtual reality” conversation strip that comes up a bit short in terms of its execution in “Sword Of Sorcery,”, Lane Milburn’s “The Gig” serves up a nicely-illustrated and just-as-nicely scripted tale of a video streamer who’s working freelance for a decidedly unsavory content provider, Hardeep Pandal’s “Bang Bros” is batshit crazy in the best possible way (a pacifier-headed entity in a death race to the top of the Statue of Liberty? Wow!), “Odnal’s Pral” by Lando goes the wordless route as it delineates a surrealistic and highly imaginative sequence that demands the context that future chapters will hopefully provide, and Benjamin Marra’s “Drug Destroyers!” — well, it does what Marra pretty much always does, only far less successfully. Props to Leon Sadler for his interesting watercolor work on the strip, though.

Whew! As far as the text articles go, my favorite was Sutcliffe’s overview of Alan Jefferson’s amateur sci-fi electronic music opus “Galactic Nightmare,” complete with several previously-unpublished concept illustrations, but Sammy Harkham’s interview with visionary illustrator Robert Beatty ranks right up there, too, as does Phil Serfaty’s conversation with techno-biological artist Joey Holder. Adham Faramawy’s overview of Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis trilogy of novels is interesting, if foreign territory for me, and Peter Bebergal’s account of golems and his own attempt to create one has really gotta be read to be believed.

All in all a fascinating package sent my way courtesy of the aformentioned Ms. Davidson (thanks so much, Anya!) whose generosity, I assure you, didn’t sway my view in any way. I hope we’ll be seeing issue two before long here.

I wasn’t as impressed with Koyama Press’ collected edition of Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Sex Fantasy mini-comics as I gather I’m meant to be, given the absolutely glowing notices it’s received elsewhere, but that may be down to pure economics. As individual publications selling for a buck or two (or whatever) apiece, Foster-Dimino’s clean, smart, visually literate illustrations alone would be enough to justify the price, but for $18.00, this book, while certainly thick, offers very little value for money given that each page is taken up with a single-panel drawing. The material improves as the book progresses, with the first three issues/chapters being devoted to overly-cutesy celebrations of individuality, uniqueness, and the inviolate right to one’s own agency (all noble themes, to be sure, but as played-out at this point as intentional irony), the middle chapters/issues offering interpretative strips that touch more directly on subjects  connected to the publication’s title, and the last few coalescing into less-abstract and frankly thoroughly absorbing relationship narratives. I like what Foster-Dimino is doing, don’t get me wrong, but from here on out I think I’ll be picking up her ever-evolving and increasingly-challenging work in single installments.

Laura Kenins’ Steam Clean is another one that actually came out a few months back (courtesy of the Retrofit Comics/Big Planet Comics co-publishing venture) but that I’m just getting around to now, and it’s a reasonably evocative and absorbing piece about a group of queer women (as well as one individual in the midst of gender transition) who rent out a sauna for a private party and end up with an unexpected guest — the Latvian goddess of fertility. Kenins’ figure drawings are quite good and her use of colored pencils and pastels gives this 84-page (damn, I’m gonna say it, sorry in advance) graphic novel a unique and striking look, but her narrative is let down by some weird pacing choices, ill-handled scene transitions, and clunky, expository dialogue. The women have a lot to say — all of it important — about unfair challenges they face in the workplace, sexual harassment, and other subjects, but many don’t have much by way of an individual voice and Kenins seems to struggle not so much with what she wants to say but how she wants to say it. Worth a read, absolutely, but worth a buy at ten bucks? I can’t quite go that far.

Ditto for Hazel Newlevant’s Sugar Town (which has also been out for a month or two now), a genuinely charming little book from Alternative Comics that addresses issues of polyamory, BDSM, and relationships between bisexual and heterosexual partners with disarming frankness and honesty, and even weaves a bit of a spell over readers — but damn, it’s over all too quickly. Newlevant’s breezy, expressive, anime-influenced illustrations are fun and help put the reader at ease with unfamiliar (for square old-timers like me, anyway) situations fraught with fluctuating boundaries (to the extent they even exist), but each of the four “chapters” (which lead me to believe this was serialized elsewhere previously, probably online) is a two- or three-minute read, and $9.99 is a lot to pay for a comic that has just over 40 pages of story and art. I loved it, no question about that, but it’s not worth the hefty price tag.

Okay, that’s it for this week! Next time out I promise to try to keep things confined to “brand new” publications, if at all possible.

 

“Now” We’re Talking

As any long-time reader of purportedly “alternative” and/or “indie” comics can tell you, one of the defining traits of the medium in every decade is a kind of “state of the art form” manifesto that’s not so much written as it is mapped out by the varying-to-disparate editorial sensibilities of, and even a kind of de facto creative tension that arises between, two contrasting and contemporary anthologies. As that same long-time reader (in this case, me) can tell you, though, the one-time gulf that separated said pair of anthos (whatever they may be) has been narrowing over time — first to a gap, then to a short hop, and now, perhaps, to something that looks very much like a convergence.

In the 1980s, for instance, despite the occasional cartoonist who could safely appear in both, the “high art” ethos (or, if you’re so inclined, pretensions) of Raw were pretty far removed from the punk-infused, DIY, “low-brow” populism of Weirdo, which not only wasn’t afraid to play around in the gutter, but seemed downright at home there — but as their respective spots were assumed by Drawn And Quarterly and Zero Zero in the ’90s, the goal posts of each shifted closer to the other. Closer still were Kramers Ergot and MOME in the so-called “aughts.” But ever since MOME closed up shop in 2011, Kramers has pretty much had the entire playing field to itself.

Not that other anthologies haven’t turned up here and there, mind you — many of them quite good. But these tended to be one-off affairs, often constructed around an editorially-dictated central theme or conceit, rather than, to invoke a sickeningly over-used term, curated publications whose nominal-to-the-point-of-being-oblique themes have to be teased out by readers by dint of the “running order” of strip presentation, a la Kramers — that is, until now. More specifically, until Now.

Former MOME editor Eric Reynolds has decided to “get back in the game,” so to speak, with a new thrice-yearly anthology that even comes complete with a (poorly-worded, but whatever) “mission statement” of sorts. To quote directly from Reynolds’ introduction : “I want to leverage Fantagraphics’ stature in the marketplace to put out an affordable and ongoing print anthology that showcases as broad a range of quality comic art as possible – and to put it under as many eyes as possible. I want to make an anthology that looks inviting to a casual comics reader but challenges them as they dig deeper. I want to encourage a revival of the short story in the age of long form graphic novels. I want to showcase as diverse a collection of cartoonists and comics as possible, one that provides a full spectrum of what the medium has to offer” — all noble goals, surely, even if the first and the last are, ya know, basically the same thing. Methinks the editor may need — an editor?

Pedantic bullshit aside, though, who am I to argue with Reynolds’ logic? And his opening night gala has a heck of a guest list : Rebecca Morgan provides the eye-catching (to say the least) cover, with three-panel back cover strip by Nick Thorburn; Sara Corbett, Gabrielle Bell, and Kramers‘ own Sammy Harkham contribute one-page strips (all quite strong); Tobias Schalken, Dash Shaw, Tommi Parrish, Kaela Graham, Daria Tessler, Conxita Hererro, and the team of cartoonist Malachi Ward and co-writer Matt Sheean chime in with medium-length strips; and Eleanor Davis, J.C. Menu, Noah Van Sciver, and Antoine Cosse serve up what we’ll call, for lack of a better term (that I can think of at the moment, at any rate) “feature-length” strips. A nice mix of veteran and emerging talent, indeed.

If pressed to pick one “standout work,” I’d probably have to go with Davis’ “Hurt Or Fuck,” a deceptively-simple interpretive piece that expertly uses the gaps in its own internal logic to heighten its emotional resonance and that, in true Davis fashion, doesn’t pack a punch so much as it leaves an invisible mark with a bittersweet (but mostly bitter) sting that lingers for days, but Van Sciver’s “Wall Of Shame” is a superb and eminently relatable autobio story not to be missed, Shaw’s “Scorpio” is an entirely unsubtle but nonetheless highly effective juxtaposition of a difficult childbirth with a just-as-difficult election night 2016 result (hey, a 128-page anthology can’t be expected to — fuck, in my view shouldn’t — avoid at least a little bit of Trump-bashing somewhere along the way), Graham’s “Pretend We’re Orphans” is a lavishly-illustrated “dark fairy tale” that effortlessly recalls memories of being scared in just the right way before bedtime, and Ward and Sheean’s “Widening Horizon” posits an alternate trajectory — extrapolated from a handful of genuinely historical roads not taken — of international space travel that both forces and invites, in equal measure, one to consider Utopian alternatives to any number of societal ills if only, ya know, shit had worked out differently (as in better) in the past.  Any of these strips are worth the price of admission (something we’ll get to momentarily) alone, but to have them all between the same two covers is more than enough to cement Now #1’s place as one of the very best comics of the year.

Are there some misfires to be found here, though? Of course, but even there nobody fails for lack of trying : Hererro’s “Here I Am” is a re-contextualized version of an earlier Bell strip that’s gorgeously drawn, but fails to bring forth anything new from its “source material,” nor to add much by way of a distinctive personality it can call its own; Schalken’s wordless “21 Positions/The Final Frontier” misses its chance to coalesce at the last moment even though it’s right there for the taking (although maybe that’s the whole point and I’m just stupid); Cosse’s “Statue” tries to pack a bit too much “food for thought” into what is a sprawling, languidly-paced visual narrative; Menu’s “S.O.S. Suitcases” has enough going for it on its own merits that its author is just plain wasting his time by leaning on Lloyd Dangle and Gary Panter “influence crutches”; Tessler’s “Songs In The Key Of Grief” take us on an incredible post- “television age” psychedelic journey but fails to clue us in on why we should want to go along for the ride; Parrish’s untitled strip offers a fascinating and informative look at changing (indeed, evolving) gender identity mores and their cause-and-effect relationship with sexual orientation but is, alas, just a touch too earnest and “lecture hall”-ish for its own good. Not a “bad” offering in the lot, by any means, but all examples of strips that set out to do something they don’t quite manage to achieve. “Fascinating but flawed,” I think, is the exact phrase I’m looking for.

It’s in analyzing the whole, though, that things get really interesting : it’s clear that Reynolds has already succeeded, just one issue into things, in doing precisely what he wanted to with Now — there’s a lot of great material to be found here, a lot of “almost great” material, and no real “clunkers” in the bunch. Furthermore, it’s presented nicely (but not too nicely) and at a very reasonable price ($9.99 for 128 pages? Where are you gonna do better than that?) — and for a final flourish, it even manages to incorporate its economic populism into its overall aesthetic, its editorial being short and to the point, its table of contents being printed on the back cover, and its cover stock being of more or less the “standard comic book” variety. The paper’s slick but not anything you wouldn’t find in an Image or Dark Horse comic; its dimensions are no taller — and only slightly wider — than, say, a Marvel or DC “floppy” single issue; it’s squarebound, but just a simple glued binding — no doubt, this is “art comics” packaged for the mass market, and for mass consumption.

And that fact, more than anything, is what convinces me that the “dueling anthologies” paradigm is back — only this time they’re not even “dueling” at all. Honestly, any and all of the strips in Now #1 would feel every bit as “at home” in the next volume of Kramers Ergot. The same aesthetic impulses seem to be driving both publications, and besides, ever-emerging delivery platforms have blown open comics as widely as they have music and film by this point. The old divisions, already diminishing, are gone altogether now and quality work will, one way or another, find its way to an audience.  The only question is whether it will be via a computer screen, a reasonably-priced printed periodical, or a fancy, deluxe, over-sized book complete with numerous bells and whistles. There’s a place for all of it. There’s a market for all of it. Hell, for hungry readers and starving cartoonists alike, there’s definitely a need for all of it.

In that sense, then, what Reynolds and Fantagraphics (who, let’s not forget, also publishes Kramers these days) are doing here is filling in an essential gap, and serving an under-served segment of the comics community. Reading through this book made me realize just how much I’d missed having a top-quality anthology available on a consistent basis at a price that didn’t break the bank. I wish it had happened sooner, absolutely — but I’m glad it’s happening Now.