Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

It’s that time of the year — specifically, the end of it. Or near enough, at any rate, for my purposes — those “purposes” being to survey the comics landscape and pick my favorites from 2019’s slate of offerings. As per the norm, I’ll be dividing things up into a veritable boat-load of different categories — top ten single issues (stand-alone comics, or ongoing projects that saw only one installment published in the last calendar year), top ten ongoing series (any comic series or “limited” series that saw two or more issues come out in 2019), top ten vintage collections (books presenting material originally published prior to the year 2000), top ten contemporary collections (books presenting material originally published after the year 2000), top ten special mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books about comics, art books, prose and/or visual works by cartoonists that aren’t exactly “comics” per se, etc.), and top ten original graphic novels (long-form original works never serialized in single issues) — and again, as per usual, we’ll kick things off with the top ten single issues list, with the others following in the coming days. Now, let’s stop dawdling and get down to business, shall we?

10. Kids With Guns #1 By Alex Nall (Self-Published) – The opening salvo of Nall’s first-ever ongoing serial instantly captured my attention with its strong characterization, sublime grasp on inter-generational relations, and oblique-but-effective social commentary, all rendered in his signature updated take on traditional “Sunday Funnies” cartooning. This project could go in any number of fascinating directions, and may or may not be about what its title implies. I’m looking forward to finding out.

9. Expelling My Truth By Tom Van Deusen (Kilgore Books) – Nobody employs exaggeration and absurdity to tell the “truth” about both modern life and themselves quite like Van Deusen, and in his latest, his trademark satirical wit has never been sharper while his line art has never been smoother. Always a study in contrasts, this guy, but he’s found an inimitable way to make his work’s deliberate and inherent contradictions become its raison d’etre.

8. Rodeo #1 By Evan Salazar (Self-Published) – Debuts don’t come much stronger than this one, as Salazar immediately establishes himself as a cartoonist with a unique perspective and a natural gift for storytelling, his tale of a temporary family break-up as seen through a particularly precocious child’s eyes revealing much more about what’s happening than a straight re-telling of the “facts” of the situation ever could. Emotionally and intellectually arresting in equal measure, and drawn in a confident, non-flashy style, this is one of the best single-creator anthology titles to come down the pipeline in many a year.

7. Stunt By Michael DeForge (Koyama Press) – I struggled with which category to put this one in, but eventually settled on single issues simply because it’s formatted like a Jack T. Chick tract even if it’s priced like a book — it’s also, in true DeForge fashion, imbued with a hell of a lot more philosophical depth than its page count would lead you to believe. A rumination on identity and its voluntary, even necessary, abandonment filtered through his usual lens of homoeroticism and gooey body horror, this short-form offering ranks right up there with the cartoonist’s most confidently-realized works.

6. Nabokova By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – It was such a strong and prolific year for Oshima that choosing a favorite among her works was tough, but in point of fact this is the one where she really “puts it all together” and delivers a treatise on alienation, self-absorption and the fine line between the two that’s every bit as dense as the Russian literature its title invokes — but it won’t, fortunately, take you all winter to to read it. Spellbinding stuff that will leave your head spinning with questions.

5. Castle Of The Beast By Ariel Cooper (Self-Published) – Fear of intimacy has never been delineated as beautifully or as sympathetically as it is in Cooper’s lush, breathtaking visual tone-poem that masterfully blends the concrete and the abstract into a comics experience quite unlike any other. Within a couple of years, this will be the cartoonist everyone is talking about

4. Tulpa By Grace Kroll (Self-Published) – It’s astonishing to see anyone bare their soul and their struggles as frankly as Kroll does in this, her first ever comic, but do so in a manner that brings forth genuine understanding rather than simply playing for sympathy? There are cartoonists that spend their whole careers struggling with what she achieves on her very first go-’round, and her singular art style is as smart as it is innovative.

3. For Real By James Romberger (Uncivilized Books) – The only thing more heroic than Jack Kirby’s characters was the man himself, and in this heartfelt tribute, master artist Romberger relates two harrowing life-and-death challenges The King faced in a manner than honors his style yet is in no way beholden to it. Another unforgettable comics experience by a cartoonist who never produces anything less.

2. Malarkey #4 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Long the champion of neurotic self-deprecation, by tracing the roots of both to her Catholic upbringing, Garcia ups the stakes — and the results — considerably and establishes herself as precisely what previous issues of this comic hinted she might become : the best autobio cartoonist in the business. And maybe even the heir apparent to the great Justin Green? In any case, her moment has well and truly arrived. Now, will somebody get busy collecting all her stuff into a book, please?

1. Tad Martin #7 By Casanova Frankenstein (Domino Books)  – I could say that seeing Frankenstein and his nominally stand-in protagonist matched up with the production values they so richly deserve is a “dream come true,” but this gorgeous, full-color, oversized comic is actually a nightmare come to life — and harrowing, soul-searing life at that. Always an exercise in re-invention, this issue of Tad combines elements of all the previous entries in this sporadic series into a comprehensive vision of nihilism as the only thing worth living for. Other cartoonists will have to fight for a place edging toward the middle — the margins of the medium are already spoken for.

And so we’re off to the races with “Top Ten” week. I’ll be tackling the best ongoing series next, but in the meantime do 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. Please do yourself — and, who are we kidding, me — a favor by checking it out at


A Pretty Impressive “Stunt”

Annie Koyama’s “farewell tour” wouldn’t be complete without one more release from Michael DeForge before Koyama press closes up shop, and while his latest, Stunt, may not qualify as a “book” so much as a stretched-out (in terms of its page count and physical dimensions) Chick tract, it’s certainly as thematically and conceptually dense as any of this one-time-ingenue cartoonist’s previous works, and further reinforces the almost giddily-obsessive nature of the psychosexual and physical terrors that are congealing and coagulating into something very much like a core “portfolio” of concerns at the heart of his overall artistic project.

Roll call : duality, the amorphous nature of identity, bondage and submission (both mental and physical), Cronenbergian body horror, fame and celebrity, overwhelming sexual need, personal apocalypse, and fluidity as the only constant.

Among other things, of course, but those are the big ones.

Rendered in blacks, whites, and blues that emphasize shape and motion while leaving stark identifiers such as features and faces deliberately ill-defined, as a study in art reflecting and consequently amplifying narrative, DeForge puts on a veritable fucking clinic with this brisk and disarmingly brusque read, our nameless stuntman protagonist voluntarily — hell, contractually — becoming the Hollywood star he doubles for gelling into reality before our unbelieving eyes with a kind of visual erudition that stands in stark contrast to, yet yins to the yang of, the disarmingly matter-of-fact scripting that disguises its sharp precision under a clever, and thin, membrane of sparse, clinical austerity. You know damn well there’s a lot going on in this comic — it never pretends otherwise — but it communicates its multi-faceted complexity in a manner that’s in no way taxing to your patience or perceptive faculties.

Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s criminally-underappreciated Enigma mined much of  this same territory with a heavy dose of post-modern literary absurdism added to the mix, but DeForge’s shorthand take on it provides for a more immediate and visceral, if less “widescreen,” exploration of it all, although I may be dating myself with that reference — still, in for a penny, in for a pound, so let’s toss in this lyrical nugget that’s even older, but still sums up the proceedings here pretty nicely : “we walk and talk in time, I walk and talk in two — where does the end of me become the start of you?”

No, I’m not 50 yet, but it looms closer with every passing year, and with that in mind I have a kind of strangely intuitive understanding of why the movie star in this story wants to commit “career suicide” — chances to  start over, to re-define one’s existence on one’s own terms, are all too rare, and his need to take that chance, paired with our ostensible “hero’s” need to assume the identity being left behind and take the “suicide” part of things more literally, is perhaps the most unique and painfully honest expression of the Cartesian principle you’re likely to come across in any medium.

Simple co-dependence is minor league stuff compared to the dynamic being limned herein, and indeed would almost present as a healthier alternative to the surrender of self that DeForge confronts us with, and about the only actual analogue I can draw is Genesis P. Orridge and Lady Jaye’s ultimately tragic, but at the same time desperately human, attempt to both transfigure and transform themselves into the same person, yet one that would also have been a product of their union — a third “life” that, theoretically, was to be both of their beings combined.

And yet even that is almost a more comfortable notion than the relationship portrayed in Stunt, given that Genesis and Lady Jaye, unconventional as their methodology was, still had continuation and survival, by means of a kind of de facto “procreation,” as their ultimate goal. DeForge offers no such concessions to the future, and presents us instead with need for its own sake — perhaps even “squared,” if you will, into the need to need. To fully subsume oneself into another, to end who you are, to sacrifice the entirety of your being and yet to still need to give up more? I wouldn’t call that love, that’s for damn sure — but I would call it the basis of perhaps the most challenging comic I’ve read this year.


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