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!

“Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters” : Alex Degen Refuses To Buckle Under To The Aesthetic Fascists

Chances are that it would be almost unbearably pretentious, not to mention way less clever than it sounds, if I were to refer to Alex Degen’s latest Koyama Press-published graphic novel, Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters  — which originally began “life” as a 44-page comic and now stands, expanded and extrapolated upon, at a whopping 392 pages — as “a visual feast – for the mind!” or somesuch, and yet —

Yeah, you guessed it. that’s definitely what it is. And I’m just as definitely kicking myself for not coming up with some genuinely unique, as opposed to glib, way to describe it — because “A.” (as the cover would have it) Degen’s cartooning is, in fact, consistently unique, and deserves same in return. Bursting at the seams with information, if not words (barring its gloriously, deliriously verbose chapter titles), there’s so much here to partake in, to parse, and to ponder over, that one scarcely knows where to begin — but for all that, by the time all is said and done, this hermetically-sealed, inventively self-referential work not only makes perfect sense, it goes the extra mile and actually imparts a genuine feeling of (oh God, here I go again) magic upon its readers.

You want color? This book is positively exploding with it! Degen, having already proven his proficiency with the black-and-white page in his previous long-form OGN, 2015’s Mighty Star And The Castle Of The Cancatervater, is out to burst eyeballs this time around, and the results are spectacular — his vaguely post-utopian (the remnants of some sort of collectivist society, now crumbling, worn, and running on mental fumes) sci-fi world is a visual marvel not only for what it contains, but for how it goes about displaying those contents : sex, violence, adventure, exploration, mystery, and physically impossible (as far as we know, at any rate) creatures and environments (again, as far as — ah, shit, I digress) rush by at 100 MPH as our titular mindhunters “liberate” the brains of the long-deceased despots who have established a dynastic reign “managed” from beyond the grave. Fast and frenetic and at times frazzled, to be sure, this is a “romp” in the truest sense, every page promising delights, delusions, and dementias hitherto unforeseen — and, crucially, delivering on those promises, plus interest.

Here’s the thing, though : as densely-packed as most of these panels and pages are, Degen’s cartooning is never anything less than intriguing, dare I say even open, each image an invitation for readers to delve deeper and explore its minutiae, to appreciate and absorb a stylistic continuum that finds inspiration in equal doses from the Far East and Eastern Europe, from futurism and dystopianism, from Chuck Jones and George Romero. Of course, Degen filters all this through his own decidedly generous and inclusive vision, but then he ups the ante by throwing all his stylistic and thematic precursors, as well as his wholly original conceptions, into a blender, setting it on “high,” and trusting in his ability to help navigate us through whatever it is that comes out. Feel like going for a ride? ‘Cuz he’s definitely going to take you on a really freaking wild one.

To Degen’s credit, though, you never feel lost within this work, even when it’s objectively overwhelming — which is, it must be said, pretty damn often. Aspects of this fictitious (let’s hope) future civilization may be alienating, indeed may even thrive on alienation and atomization on a global scale, but this comic never puts you at a remove, comfortable or otherwise, from its characters and events; it compels your attention from the outset, rewards it almost immediately, and then consistently grabs hold of it again, not so much stuck in an endless loop of “one-upping” itself as it is concerned with peeling away successive layers of its metaphorical “onion” and revealing new aspects that build upon each other, visually and narratively, on the way toward — well, that would be telling, but it’s no “spoiler” at all to say the final act here will leave you very satisfied indeed.

Count me, then, as being something quite a bit more than merely “impressed” with Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters. Annie Koyama has been, as the young folks say, positively “killing it” with her Spring 2018 slate of releases, and Degen’s thoroughly immersive and absolutely singular take on classic “free-individuals-vs.-a-totalitarian-society” science fiction themes and tropes may just be a strong contender for the very best title in the bunch.