Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

At last we reach the finish line with the sixth and final of our “Best of 2021” lists. This time up the category is TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS, which I hope is fairly self-explanatory : new and original works in the so-called “graphic novel” format that have not been previously serialized, at least in anything like their entirety, either physically or digitally. There were many excellent books to choose from this year, and narrowing it down to my ten favorites was a pretty tough task. Here’s what I came up with :

10. Penny By Karl Stevens (Chronicle Books) – While not a “graphic memoirist” per se, Stevens always finds inspiration for his lavishly illustrated stories pretty close to home : this time out it’s his cat’s turn to have adventures ranging from the cosmic to the banal and everything in between. Seriously, if this book doesn’t move you, then check your pulse — you may not have one.

9. Generous Bosom Part 4 By Conor Stechschulte (Breakdown Press) – The twists and turns finally all converge in this final installment of Stechschulte’s opus of mindfuckery. A perfect ending it’s not, but that doesn’t preclude it from being an eminently satisfying one. Oh, and hey — soon to be a major motion picture! But that’s another story for another time, and one that’s already more convoluted than the books it’s (partially, at any rate) based on.

8. Mycelium Wassonii By Brian Blomerth (Anthology Editions) – Comics’ modern master of psychedelia follows up his book on the early days of acid research with a book on — the early day’s of ‘shroom research? Hey, give Blomerth credit : he knows both what he likes and what he does really well. An educational, informative, and gorgeously-drawn “trip” well worth taking.

7. Lure By Lane Milburn (Fantagraphics) – An ambitious science fiction epic that never loses sight of its humanity, Milburn’s exploration of life on Earth and its fictitious “twin” planet may be set in the future but is still as timely as they come, offering as it does cogent commentary on such things as the so-called “gig economy,” the exploitation of the natural world, Amazonian hyper-capitalism, colonialism, and the billionaire space race. One of those rare comics that not only lives up to, but exceeds, all the “buzz” surrounding it.

6. Super! Magic Forest By Ansis Purins (Revival House) – A “kids’ comic” for the kid in all of us, Purins’ vividly imaginative world leaps off the page and into your heart with the kind of unforced charm that simply can’t be faked. All that wonder and mystery and significance you left behind when you grew up? It’s all right here, waiting to welcome you back.

5. Death Plays A Mean Harmonica By Steve Lafler (Cat Head Comics) – American ex-pats decamp to Oaxaca to live the good life, only to find themselves surrounded by vampires, intelligent fungi, and yes, even Death him/itself — but hey, maybe it’s still the good life after all! Blending the personal with the outrageous with the outrageously funny as only he can, Lafler has created one of the finest works of his storied career.

4. Nod Away Vol. 2 By Joshua W. Cotter (Fantagraphics) – The second “chapter” in Cotter’s science fiction masterpiece-in-progress abruptly shifts focus yet still manages to build on all that’s come before. Written and drawn with more passionate intensity per page than perhaps anything else out there, this is the embodiment of a true magnum opus — and while I can’t claim to have the first guess as to where it’s all headed, I do know that I wouldn’t miss it for the world. Neither should you.

3. Chartwell Manor By Glenn Head (Fantagraphics) – Powerful, poignant, and painful, Head’s memoir of abuse at the hands of a schoolmaster is just as much about the parental denial that allowed it to continue and the lasting psychological scars that never really heal as it is about the perpetrator, and as a result this stands as one of the most thorough-going examinations of survival in the history of the medium. When they talk about “comics that will be discussed and debated for years to come,” this is what they mean.

2. From Granada To Cordoba By Pier Dola (Fantagraphics Underground) – The full-length debut of a masterful new voice, Dola’s existential downward spiral balances humanism with nihilism (don’t even ask me how that works), visual literacy with the aesthetics and approach of a true “outsider.” In a sane and just world, this would be the year’s most influential comic. Here’s to hoping — just don’t expect to find much hope in the pages of the book itself, okay?

1. The Domesticated Afterlife By Scott Finch (Antenna) – A decade in the making, Finch’s breathtakingly unique book is a seamless marriage of the literary and the visual in service of telling a multi-faceted but absolutely singular story with an equally singular worldview. Not exactly an anarchist anti-domestication text per se, although such sentiments surely inform it, I would argue that it’s more an emotive exploration of what is lost when the conscious and unconscious are bifurcated and dreaming itself is colonized by pedestrian rationality. Featuring a complex and enthralling set of contrasting symbols and mythologies, this is no mere exercise in “world-building,” but rather an act of reality creation that stands as a testament to the transformational power of imagination.

And that, my friends, is a wrap — not only on these lists, but on Four Color Apocalypse for the year 2021. I’ll be back in early January (that’s next week, so it’s not like I’m taking some long “break” or anything) with the first reviews of the new year, but until then, if you want more, there’s always my Patreon, which I update three times per week and can be found by going over to

Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Vintage Collections

Moving right along with our 2021 round-up, we arrive at the TOP TEN VINTAGE COLLECTIONS list. The rules for this category are as simple as they are arbitrary on my part : basically, any book which collects and/or presents comics material originally published prior to the year 2000 fits my definition of “vintage.” One of these years I should probably bump that up by a decade or so, but this is not that year. This category also includes translated works such as manga, Eurocomics, and the like, provided they’re chronologically appropriate. And with that out of the way, here’s what we’ve got :

10. Scoop Scuttle And His Pals : The Crackpot Comics Of Basil Wolverton, Edited By Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics) – A legitimately uproarious collection or little-seen early Wolverton humor strips meticulously restored and overseen by the comics historian who knows his work best, these are admittedly not as outrageously OTT as what would come later, but stand well enough on their own to mark this book as more than simply a compendium of early-days curiosities. If there’s not enough fun stuff in your current reading pile, picking this up will surely rectify that situation immediately.

9. Alberto Breccia’s Dracula, Translated By Jamie Richards (Fantagraphics) – Lavish wordless strips from the Argentinian master that place history’s most infamous vampire in conflict with the dual soul-crushing forces of military dictatorship and US commercial imperialism, this was both gutsy stuff for its time and, as it turns out, a prescient warning about the future. Even Breccia’s funniest work packs a conceptual wallop.

8. Red Flowers By Yoshiharu Tsuge, Translated By Ryan Holmberg (Drawn+Quarterly) – After dabbling in genre for his earliest stores, Tsuge left its safe confines to create these emotionally immersive tales informed by his own travels, and the results are still several levels above the merely “impressive” to this day. I’d say something about witnessing the flowering of an artist’s talents, but surely that would be too painfully obvious for its own good, wouldn’t it? Except I sort of just did. Whoops.

7. My Life & Times : Spain Vol. 3 By Spain Rodriguez, Edited By Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics) The most recent volume of Rosenkranz’ exhaustive Spain retrospective is also the best, focusing as it does primarily on the underground master’s autobiographical comics. Gorgeously restored and thoughtfully presented, this is the “deluxe treatment” this work has long been deserving of.

6. The Biologic Show By Al Columbia (Hollow Press) – Apparently the cartoonist himself is none too pleased with this collection for reasons I’m not privy to, but damn if I wasn’t impressed. One of the most disquieting series ever produced as well as one of the finest auteur works of the 1990s, having this material back in print is something for which all of us not named Al Columbia should be incredibly thankful.

5. BugHouse Book One By Steve Lafler (Cat Head Comics) – Bridging the 1990s/early 2000s divide but with very much a 1950s Beatnik “vibe” to it, Lafler’s under-appreciated gem of a series is richly deserving of finding a broader audience. Jazz, drugs, femmes fatales — there’s no telling which is more dangerous in this unassumingly, and unquestionably, visionary comic.

4. It’s Life As I See It : Black Cartoonists In Chicago 1940-1980, Edited By Dan Nadel (New York Review Comics) – Released in conjunction with a retrospective exhibition of the same name, Nadel’s superb collection features everything from political cartooning to newspaper strips to undergrounds to downright mainstream-leaning fare and presents a comprehensive and engrossing view of the rich cartooning history that’s been an integral part of the Black experience in Chicago. There are names both familiar and less so on offer in these pages, as well as plenty of work that’s seldom been made available outside the city itself, making this the definition of an “essential” read.

3. Jimbo : Adventures In Paradise By Gary Panter (New York Review Comics) – Unquestionably the most influential book on this list, there’s no underestimating the impact of Panter’s masterwork on generations of cartoonists who followed in its (and his) wake. Some unfortunate production errors on the part of the publisher (including cropped-off artwork) prevent this from being ranked higher than it deserves to be, but its nevertheless a fairly decent presentation of one of the best comics every made by anyone.

2. Enigma : The Definitive Edition By Peter Milligan And Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse/Berger Books) – The finest mainstream comic of the 1990s finally gets its due with an impressive presentation that may leave a bit to be desired in terms of color reproduction and page size, but still represents a more comprehensive package than fans of this cult classic (myself included) probably had any right to hope for. More than the “British Invasion” mind-fuck to end all “British Invasion” mind-fucks (although it sure is that), Milligan and Fegredo’s magnum opus is a labyrinthine, clever, and hilarious meditation on identity, reality creation, and the nature of meaning itself in a postmodern world.
1. Trots And Bonnie By Shary Flenniken, Edited By Norman Hathaway (New York Review Comics) – If “long overdue” is a running theme here, no collection fits that description better than this deluxe oversized presentation of Flenniken’s groundbreaking National Lampoon classic. “Irreverent” is the most polite way to put it when it comes to these strips — “beyond good and evil” might be more like it. Obliterating all boundaries of taste (good and otherwise), Flenniken created a comic whose power to shock and disturb is only exceeded by its ability to make you laugh your ass off and empathize with its characters. Like nothing else, before or since.

We’ve got two lists left to go, for TOP TEN CONTEMPORAY COLLECTIONS and TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS, and my plan is to get them both done in the next day or two. Until then, it’s my duty to remind you that ALL of these are “brought to you” by 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. 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

See What The Buzz Is About : Steve Lafler’s “BugHouse” Book One

It’s always a treat when a staple of your reading youth (and in this case I use the term “youth” advisedly, as I was well into my twenties when the series in question originally saw print) becomes available again for a new generation to enjoy — or for members of your own generation who may have missed out on it the first time around to finally discover for themselves. There’s bound to be a bit of risk involved in re-visiting something you hold in high esteem, though, isn’t there? I mean, a person’s tastes and expectations change over time, there’s no doubt about that — or at least they damn well should — so what appealed to you at age 25 stands a very real chance of just not doing the job for your 40-something self. Above and beyond that, though, there’s also a very real possibility that changing times in a general sense can blunt the efficacy of a former favorite, rendering it quaint at best, archaic at worst, through no fault of its own. And then, ya know, something could simply be not as good as you remember it being.

All of which is to say that, even though I look back on Steve Lafler’s BugHouse (which I first followed in single-issue “floppies” put out by Lafler’s own Cat-Head Comics imprint in the 1990s and then as a trilogy of graphic novels published by Top Shelf in the 2000s) with a tremendous degree of fondness, nostalgia alone isn’t enough to earn his hot-off-the-presses new printing of BugHouse Book One — which, in true “return to roots” form, he’s self-published —a glowing review from my middle-aged iteration, hardened and perhaps even made overly-critical by years in the comic book review game as I now am. The book has still gotta earn its keep based on its merits alone.

Within a few pages, though, my worries about how well it would hold up well and truly dissipated. Sure, a rush of memories came flooding back as I re-acquainted myself with tenor sax-man (sorry, -insect) supreme Jimmy Watt and his supporting cast of loveable beatnik miscreants as they attempt to make the leap from the “Big Band” era into the newfangled world of jazz — and to resist temptations of both the narcotic and femme fatale variety as they navigate the emerging musical and cultural landscape — but this wasn’t simply a case of something being “every bit as good now as it was then.” No, friends, this comic is even better than I remembered it being.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that my appreciation for what Lafler has achieved here is even greater now than it was at the time. Simply put, this is downright sublime cartooning that would — hell, that does — rise well above the pack in any era. Like Jimmy Watt himself, Lafler is at his best when he is both firmly in control and improvising in equal measure, and while there is a very definite narrative trajectory to this story, it’s in no way hurried or forced along. Lafler knows which “beats” he wants to hit, and trusts in his ability to bring them out rather than make them happen, and that makes all the difference in the world. He sets the tempo with strong, instantly-memorable characters, snappy dialogue, an absorbing premise, and flat-out virtuoso cartooning that puts you right inside the spaces (physical, mental, and emotional) his coterie of anthropomorphic insects are inhabiting, and from there, well — it’s pure comic book jazz.

Now, like any good jam session there are an awful lot of moving parts, but the beauty of the comics medium is that you can absorb each in your own time, so by all means — don’t be afraid to linger on the rich texturing and shading in any given panel, or the smooth flow of Lafler’s brush line. Take a moment to savor a particularly clever and well-timed line of dialogue. There’s a flow to this work, to be sure — one often as subtle as it is inexorable — but that doesn’t mean that you can’t and shouldn’t establish a rhythm of your own, as well. After all, a performer is nothing without an audience, and I defy anyone to sit through this performance without feeling the distinct urge to get up out of their seat and clap on any number of occasions.

A lot has changed since Lafler first put pen to paper and created what remains his magnum opus, but trust me when I say that it singles itself out as being utterly unique and special now just as it did then. This is a comic that transports you to a very singular and spectacularly-realized place and time and holds you fast to the point where you quite literally don’t want to leave. I felt absolutely privileged to pay a return visit to Lafler’s world, and envious of those who will be having the pleasure of experiencing it for the first time. Now more than ever, this stands out as one more the most purely enjoyable comics that I’ve ever read in my life.


BugHouse Book One is available for $16.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at

Review wrist check – I couldn’t be happier with my latest acquisition, the Stella “Felix,” in the dial color they call “Downtown Red,” riding Stella’s own factory-issue black leather strap with cream-colored stitching. Of all the timepieces in my collection, this is probably the one best suited to a night out at the jazz club.

“Death Plays A Mean Harmonica” — And Steve Lafler Crafts A Really Nice Comic

Oaxaca is an interesting, dare I say even magical place — a unique intersection of indigenous traditions, modern-day Mexican culture, and American expat bon vivant-ism that’s been added to the mix thanks to its large gringo transplant community. On any given night, anything can happen, and the air is pregnant with festivity, possibility, and even a dash intrigue.

Or so I’m told, at any rate — largely by my parents, who became part of that aforementioned gringo transplant community when they retired down there nearly two years ago. I’d dearly love to visit, but the pandemic has made that wish an impossibility for the time being, although hopefully not for too much longer. Until then, though, I’ve got their emails and photos — and the comics of EX-expat Steve Lafler, who returns to the place he once called home (or, in a pinch, a home away from home) for his latest self-published graphic novel, Death Plays A Mean Harmonica.

Okay, yes, it would be a lie to say this book isn’t first and foremost an involving and inviting ensemble-cast character drama, rife with narrative tributaries that coalesce in ways pleasingly unexpected if perhaps just a hair shy of downright surprising, but as much as it may be “about” newly-arrived transplants Gertie and Rex and their head-first dive into the social milieu of this little slice of Bohemia way south of the border, it’s very nearly as concerned with said slice of Bohemia way south of the border — specifically, its unspecifics : the pace of life, the atmosphere, the overall “vibe” that so many people looking for a fresh start in one way or another are first drawn to and then happy to immerse themselves in.

To that end, the book has an admirable sense of nonchalance to it — as mentioned, Lafler’s crafted a multi-faceted narrative here, but he’s not in any particular rush to force story “beats” upon readers, trusting more in both his storytelling ability and his no-doubt-sharp recollections of all things Oaxaca to weave a kind of low-key spell that’s all the more immersive for its leisurely qualities. Yes, there’s “connective tissue” aplenty that binds the fates of Gertie, Rex, a Zapotec vampire named Eduardo (who’s more into chicken than human blood), taxi-driving sentient fungus El Rey Pelon, free-spirited Caroline and, yes, Death himself — but there’s time and space (specifically, 140-plus pages of it) to sort all that out. If you’re not prepared to relax and enjoy the ride, though, you’ll be missing out on what can only be called a singularly and authentically Oaxacan reading experience, one that’s at least as concerned with the journeys of its characters, both natural and supernatural, as it is their various and sundry destinations.

This overall mellow-but-purposeful tone to the proceedings also makes its presence felt in Lafler’s smooth, fluid, entirely unforced art, an agreeable mix of semi-elegant brushwork, classical “just exaggerated enough” cartoonish-ness, subtle shading and texturing, and richly expressive facial expressions and body language. Even absent the crackerjack dialogue that’s always been Lafler’s stock in trade, these pages would be a joy to just look at and luxuriate in, each one a prime example of an experienced hand utterly confident in his own craft — and for damn good reason. It’s pitch-perfect, a veritable clinic on how to draw the eye into scenes where most of the drama comes by way of interpersonal communication rather than dull fisticuffs, chases on foot or by car, etc. When you look at Lafler’s characters talking, you instantly want to know what they’re talking about.

What it all adds up to is a comic done with equal parts passion and professionalism about a fascinating bunch of people (and other life forms) living in a fascinating place and getting up to fascinating things, together and separately. It made me want to get myself down to Oaxaca even more than I already dis going in, and I think it’s safe to say it will have that effect on most every reader — even folks who don’t have family down there.


Death Plays A Mean Harmonica is available for $13.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at

Review wrist check – on a freezing cold day like today, all a person can really do is dream about warmer weather, and what better way to do that than by looking down at your wrist and seeing the favorite summertime pairing of a Squale “1521” classic blue dial model riding a BluShark marlin NATO strap from their “AlphaShark” collection? Hell, this would be perfect for Oaxaca!

The Good — And Bad — Old Days : Steve Lafler’s “1956 : Sweet Sweet Little Ramona”

Heralding itself as the first chapter in a multi-part saga, Steve Lafler’s slender new book 1956 : Sweet Sweet Little Ramona — self-published under the cartoonist’s own venerable Cat-Head Comics imprint — is, at first glance, the retail world’s answer to Mad Men (and I say that fairly confidently in spite of being someone who’s never seen probably more than a few minutes of Mad Men — and in passing, at that), but if there’s one thing Lafler’s proven over his long career, it’s that he knows how to subvert expectations even while working within fairly well-defined genre confines. Sure, this being but an opening salvo and all it’s impossible to say whether the same will prove to be true here in the long run, but in the early going? All signs sure seem to point in that direction.

So, yeah, it’s 1956, and a gaggle of department store buyers are on the prowl in New York City, specifically The Village, engaging in a night of at least attempted debauchery at the jazz clubs before hitting the garment district in the morning. Lafler knows his old-school retail, introducing us to a cast of characters that fit that world to the proverbial “T,” and their various workplace intrigues and time-honored methods of blowing off steam on the company’s dime are fun to read about, especially charged as they are with authentic period lingo and wise-cracking dialogue. But, you guessed it, there’s something more going on here —

Enter Ramon in his male presentation, followed in due course by Ramona in her female one. A Texas transplant desperately trying to avoid a return home by plying their trade in the world’s oldest profession, precisely how they fit into the larger story remains to be seen — although it’s assumed they’ll find themselves at the heart of it one way or another. I mean, you don’t get the book named after you for nothing. Lafler’s created an instantly-memorable character here, that’s for sure: not a down-and-out victim of circumstance, but definitely at the mercy of it to a degree; not a hopeless addict, but someone who won’t say no to a line or a bump; not a streetwalker, but someone who isn’t keeping their occupation (or even both sides of their identity) a secret — and, most crucially, not a stereotype, but a well-rounded, complex, intelligent-but-fallible human being. You’ll want to know more about them, trust me.

Other various subplots hew a bit closer to standard 1950s deconstruction, such as the decision the boss-man needs to make about whether or not to put a woman in charge of one of his product lines, but even then Lafler’s sheer storytelling skills are enough to make it all interesting. He’s playing a long game here, and there are a lot of pieces on the board, but he moves them with a kind of precise fluidity that looks effortless enough on its face, but likely requires some pretty detailed advance plotting. He almost certainly knows where he’s going with all of this, but we don’t — and that’s the key to reeling us in once we’re on the line.

The really remarkable thing, though, is that despite some of this book’s admittedly lurid subject matter (our boys from the buying office do not behave themselves), there’s an elegance to it all, even a romanticism. A lot of that is down to Lafler’s admittedly gorgeous and smooth line, his attention to detail seldom wavering — but part of it’s also down to the narrative tone he adopts, most evident in the layer of mystery he shrouds his lead character with and the rich atmosphere he positively soaks the jazz world in. Yeah, the ’50s sucked for anyone other than straight, white, cisgender, hetero guys, but even still — this book sure makes them seem like they’d be an interesting destination to stop off at for a night in your time machine.

Fortunately, this is just our first visit back there, and we couldn’t ask for a better guide. I’m ready for more, Lafler, right after I finish this dry martini — ah, what the hell, I’ll bring it with.


1956 : Sweet Sweet Little Ramona is available for $9.95 from J. T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by 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. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to