Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year in Review : Top Ten Single-Issue Comics

And so it begins : with the end of the year breathing down our necks, it’s time to take stock of the best (by my estimation, at any rate) comics of 2021, broken down, as usual, into six different categories so as to avoid the goofy shit you find elsewhere — like, say, a 12-page mini having to “compete” against a 400-page graphic novel, or a book of reprinted material being judged by the same standard as all-new stuff. My goal is to get three lists done this week, then do three more next week, beginning with the TOP TEN SINGLE-ISSUE COMICS, which means stand-alone “floppy” comics or minis, or single issues of ongoing series which were one-offs — any series (limited or ongoing) which saw two or more issues released in 2021 will be eligible in the TOP TEN COMICS SERIES category. Sound good? Let’s do this :

10. God Bless The Machine By Connor McCann (Strangers Fanzine) – An acid-trip science fiction conceptual free-for-all that takes dead aim at vapid celebrity worship and global media consolidation while never forgetting to be a ton of fun along the way, McCann’s comic is equal parts timely as hell and decades ahead of its time. If you miss the days when comics were insane, fun and insanely fun, I’ve got good news : they’re back.

9. Birth Of The Bat By Josh Simmons (The Mansion Press) – Simmons’ latest “Bootleg Batman” comic continues his trend of de facto deconstruction by taking the character of the Caped Crusader to its logical extremes — which is to say, well past the point of disturbing absurdity. Where some are content to merely mine the so-called “Bat mythos” for all its worth, Simmons strip mines it — and yet always seems to have more to say on the subject.

8. Epoxy #6 By John Pham (Self-Published) – Another sumptuous riso-printed feast for the eyes from the modern master of hand-printed comics. Who can say no to more “J+K” hijinks, another installment of “Deep Space,” and fold-outs and inserts galore? I know I sure can’t. Long may this series continue.

7. BUM : Unsmooth #2 By E.S. Glenn (Floating World Comics) – Glenn blows the doors wide open with this formally experimental, genre-hopping tour de force that plays with convention in the best way possible : by utilizing it for the artists’ own ends. Shifting styles as frequently as it shifts tone and perspective, this is one of those comics that leaves you with more questions than answers while all the time making its own kind of highly-specialized “sense” along the way. Ambitious, multi-layered, and metatextual, this is auteur work of the highest order.

6. The Future Is An Open Mouth By Dustin Holland (Self-Published) – Speaking of auteur comics, Holland produces nothing but, and this represents probably the most successful synthesis of his idiosyncratic creative vision with the always-nebulous concept of reader “accessibility.” Which is to say, it’s fucking ecstatically weird, but you’re never lost within its hermetic “universe.” Like all the best art, its borderline-impossible to define what makes Holland’s work so special, you just know that it is.

5. Dear Mother & Other Stories By Bhanu Pratap (Strangers Fanzine) – Arguably the year’s most disturbing work both conceptually and visually, Pratap’s full-length debut challenges notions of identity, bodily autonomy, and intrinsic need on levels both macro and micro. If you don’t think there can be beauty in nihilism, think again, but be warned : the more you do think about this comic, the more sleep you’ll lose.

4. Burg Land 1 – Sleemore Gank By Alexander Laird (Self-Published) – The most imaginative sci-fi comic to come down the pike in a hell of a long time, Laird’s loosely-paced but tightly-plotted opening salvo of what promises to be a sprawling sci-fi opus is breathtaking on every level, creatively and technically, rivaling the riso production values of even the esteemed (and aforementioned) Mr. Pham. Sure, this comic is a clinic on the art of so-called “world building,” but it’s got more than enough heart to match its brains, and that makes all the difference.

3. Speshal Comics, Edited By Floyd Tangeman (Dead Crow) – Essentially a “bonus issue” of Tangeman’s groundbreaking Tinfoil Comix, and showcasing the work of many of the same cartoonists who have appeared in that anthology, the strips in this one all honor the late Bay Area artist/tagger Evan “Spesh” Larsen, and while I admit I never knew the guy, this comic sure makes me wish that I had. This is no mere “tribute” publication, however — rather it’s a celebration and examination of an artist, his ethos, and his body of work as seen from multiple points of view, and well and truly runs the stylistic and tonal gamut. “Spesh” himself may be gone, but this comic is a monumental legacy in and of itself.

2. Scat Hog Volume One By Cooper Whittlesey (Self-Published) – Every year it seems a comic comes from out of left field and knocks me for a wallop. This year, that dubious “honor” belonged to this collection of Whittlesey’s straight-from-the-id strips, scrawled with all the energy and urgency of self-exorcism and not so much released into the world as it was thrust upon it. Still, in my defense, nothing can really prepare anybody for this torrential onslaught of unleashed artistic imperative. Shock and awe, baby — emphasis on the latter.

1. Crashpad By Gary Panter (Fantagraphics) – A bit of a cheat here in that this is an oversized hardcover book as well as a “floppy” single issue, but if anything is worth bending the rules for it’s this, Panter’s love letter to the underground. And while it holds true to many of the precepts of its artistic progenitors, it never takes the easy way out by wallowing in nostalgia — instead, Panter takes inspiration from the past to do what he does best : show us a way forward. Far out? Sure. But don’t be surprised if this one takes you on a journey inside, as well.

Okay, that’s one down, five to go — next up we’ll be looking at the TOP TEN COMICS SERIES. Until then, a reminder that my Patreon is updated three times a week with whatever is on my mind on the subjects of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Depending on who you are, your support either is or would be greatly appreciated. https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Nothing Ever Made Sense : Cooper Whittlesey’s “Scat Hog” Volume One

I’m having a damn tough time deciding whether or not the actual contents of Chicago-based cartoonist Cooper Whittlesey’s self-published Scat Hog Volume One are as incendiary as the title would suggest. On the one hand, yeah, this comic most certainly dwells on the more repugnant biological realities of human existence, but only insofar as they’re magnified and reflected in the less-than-grander tapestry of the cultural zeitgeist writ large — in other words, all is scat and all is hog and if you’re in the market for the “fee-good” reading, this ain’t it.

What it is, however, is scathingly — dare I say scatologically — funny more of then than not, and even when it isn’t the deep thread of absurdism that runs through and indeed underpins everything on offer is still more than present, yet paradoxically less than oppressive. Whittlesey has a definite point of view, one grounded in what I’d call justifiably jaded realism, but it’s not like he’s out to even explain his way of thinking, much less win over any coverts to it. You either start out on his wavelength from jump, or you never get on it. And if you’re not on it, then the sheer aesthetic chaos that’s readily apparent at first glance here is probably going to preclude you from ever wanting to decode and decipher the book’s many mysteries.

So, that’s any and all squares erased from the equation, and as we all know that’s never much of a loss. Ironically enough, though, scabrous and intentionally muddled art notwithstanding, a good many of the one-page strips collected herein are “easy” enough to follow, their direct linear nature both contrasting and, more intriguingly, confounding their haphazard presentation. There’s no doubt that Whittlesey is “bringing it” with every panel, and the almost unforgivingly intense nature of his illustration renders any and all critiques of his technical prowess absolutely moot. This guy might be skilled enough to draw a perfect copy of Chris Ware’s most elaborate double-page spread, but who the fuck wants to see that? And who wants him to slow his brain down to the level requisite for such passionless “detail work”? I’ll take the straight feed from the id every time, no matter what it looks like.

As for what this does look like, well — that’s a more difficult thing to put a metaphorical finger on. In a pinch I’d say Casanova Frankenstein on a six-day bender of booze and really bad acid might come up with something like this, or maybe Gary Panter could approximate it if he injured both of his hands and his brain, but it’s best to look at Whittlesey’s cartooning as what it is — completely uncharted waters that are murky by both choice and necessity. I may not always “understand” what I’m looking at on these pages, but I recognize there’s not one false note in any of it. If your optic nerve can’t handle a full-scale visceral assault on its functioning you might do well to stay away, but if you consider yourself to be at all aesthetically adventurous, then you really do owe it yourself to prove your mettle by grappling with this comic.

And that, it seems to me, is the key word here : you don’t read Whittlesey’s strips per se so much as you tackle them head-on, immerse yourself in them, and hope to make it out the other side. Odds are your perception of more or less everything about what comics “should” be or not will be pulverized — shit, I’d go so far as to say completely atomized — but you’ll emerge all the stronger for it. Or you’ll run screaming for the bughouse. Either way, something will have shifted permanently, and we could all do with a bit more of that in our lives.

I like to think I’m someone who’s been around the comics block a fair number of times and seen almost everything there is to see, but nothing could have possibly prepared me for this — which means that Whittlesey’s book has managed to do what few can, or even seek to : blow my mind. And yes, I mean that literally. If you’re at a point in your comics-reading “journey” where art that leaves you reeling is in desperately and depressingly short supply, then look no further. Rules, reason, and rationality never factored into Cooper Whittlesey’s creative process, and as long as they don’t? I’m down for a ride on this conductor’s crazy train anytime. 2021’s boldest statement of intent is here — even if it’s next to impossible to determine what that statement is.

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I got my copy of Scat Hog Volume One directly from Cooper Whittlesey, but you might find procuring one yourself to be considerably more difficult. If you’re sufficiently intrigued to give it a go anyway — and you should be — you could do worse than emailing the cartoonist directly at cooperwhittlesey27@gmail.com.

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclsuive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse