Exploring Tana Oshima’s “Unbound” Imagination

Set in the creatively-fertile netherworld where dreams, myths, and reality converge — and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that whatever “barriers” exist between them are fragile and transitory at best — Tana Oshima’s new “all-ages” comic, Unbound, takes readers on a journey unlike any other and solidifies her reputation as one of the most unique cartooning auteurs of our time. Here’s the thing, though : it’s not like she’s setting out to necessarily do any of that — and that’s part of what makes this work so special.

On the surface, the narrative that unfolds in this gorgeous self-published squarebound book is deceptively simple : two people strike up a friendship and decide to transform into a bird and a flower in order to spend their lives together seeing all that there is to see. But there are layers upon layers of meaning and import to unpack over, above, and beyond what’s happening on a liminal level, and to that end we find ourselves grappling with questions of identity, displacement, emotional bonding, the meaning of community and belonging, and even power dynamics and inequality — as with all things Oshima, the real journey is within, no matter how far afield events may take us.

Rendered in a heartfelt minimalist style on cream-colored paper and laid out in her traditional four-panel grids, Oshima is re-orienting her narrative thrust toward younger readers with this comic, true, but she does so in a way that feels expansive, rather than confining. Existential queries have always been her forte, but here she’s challenged herself to present them in such a way that anyone can understand their precepts and limn their boundaries without feeling challenged so much as invited to give them thorough-going consideration. On paper it may sound like much of this would “go above a child’s head,” or words to that effect, but in truth it probably takes a child’s more open and free mind to really “get” what she’s going for with much of this material, and it’s us old-timers who need to check our cynicism at the door if we want to understand and experience this in all its rich, understated fullness.

Which brings me back to what I was saying at the outset — this is a comic that has no particular ambitions to be anything other than a classic folkloric tale with a kind of timeless sensibility to it, but by adhering to that vision in a manner best described as entirely unforced yet equally unwavering, Oshima creates something as simply honest as it is indelible; a permanent memory that arrives like a gentle breeze and subsequently carries you with it. There is power in these pages — aesthetically, narratively, conceptually — but it is a power that draws you in as opposed to knocking you over.

In a pinch, then, I’d say the greatest quality of this work rests in its inherently seductive nature, which I’ll be the first to admit is a weird thing to say about a so-called “kids’ comic.” And yet as a descriptive, it absolute applies, as Oshima is clearly aiming to plant the seed or kernel of an idea in your mind here and to let you take it from there. Her story has a beginning, a middle, and an end — all clearly delineated and traditionally structured — but in the final analysis is all about providing an open-ended framework for readers, be they eight years old or 80, to not only draw their own conclusions from, but to follow in whatever directions ring true to them personally.

So — what do we have here, when we boil it down to its essentials? One of the finest comics of the year, absolutely — more importantly than that, though, a thing of beauty.

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Unbound is available for $8.00 from Tana Oshima’s website at https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/product/unbound

Review wrist check – Raven “Trekker 39” yellow dial/black ceramic bezel model on bracelet.

I’ve Seen The Future And It Looks A Lot Like “Spiny Orb Weaver” #1

I hardly think I’m making news here by informing all you good readers that the economic landscape for small press comics and self-publishers is absolutely brutal right now — and by that I mean even more brutal than usual — but there are still plenty of people making a go of it by means of every distribution and financing mechanism you can think of, the most popular being crowd-funding and online serialization. It’s no stretch to say that some of the most talked-about comics of the so-called “pandemic era” have been instagram comics, and that platforms such as Kickstarter have afforded many a cartoonist the ability to have their work see print even when their own bank accounts were hovering near rock bottom. There are, however, other less-utilized means of hustling up the money necessary to produce a comic, and one that I’m frankly surprised isn’t utilized more often in the local arts grant — which brings us to the book under our metaphorical lens today, Spiny Orb Weaver #1.

Edited by Neil Brideau and published under the auspices of his Radiator Comics imprint, this new series was funded by The Ellies, a Miami-based visual arts award, and as such the idea behind it is to promote the burgeoning South Florida cartooning scene — but Brideau has found an ingenious way of expanding his talent pool without stepping outside the bounds of his tight-by-design remit, to wit : each issue will feature a cover and lead story by a local artist, followed by an interview with them, and then the final few pages are devoted to a memoir-based “backup strip” by someone who used to call the area home but has since moved on. These are, then, all South Florida comics — even the ones made by cartoonists who don’t live there. Heck, even the title of the publication has a local resonance, the Spiny Orb Weaver being the name of a spider native to the region.

The spotlight of this first issue falls squarely on a name that’s new to me, Miss Jaws (or Jessica Garcia, as her birth certificate would have it), and while her story’s central trope of a highly social pet (in this case Max, the dog, even talks) helping his owner, DJ, overcome her own social anxiety and connect with her neighbors is an admittedly obvious one, it’s presented in an interesting and agreeable enough manner to make even a cynic like myself find the whole thing reasonably compelling. This is largely down to a combination of factors, most notable among them being that Miss Jaws writes an incredibly authentic protagonist, but let’s be honest : the theme of personal isolation in a crowded city is eminently relatable at present, to the point where even the most social of butterflies probably has felt a little bit of what the ostensible heroine of this strip does. Points, then, for timeliness, for solid scripting, and for eschewing an easy, saccharine take on complex psychological subject matter in favor of a far more subtle, considered, and naturalistic approach. I liked the story, and I really liked the art : Miss Jaws utilizes every page all the way to the margins and infuses her fundamentally solid figure drawing with a notable degree of personality by means of well-chosen facial expression and body language “cues,” then tops it all off with expert gray-tone usage that really captures and sustains a specific mood from start to finish.

What I found perhaps even more interesting, though, was Brideau’s interview with the artist, which handily covers the basics for Miss Jaws “newbies” like myself, but then goes the extra mile by delving into her process, sure, but more crucially and substantively her artistic goals, ideals, and concerns, giving readers a full picture of an artist with a both a clear purpose and a distinct methodology by which she seeks to communicate it. The next comic I see with her name on it or in it is one that I’ll be buying immediately, as she is every bit the proverbial “talent to watch.”

All of which brings us, finally, to Tana Oshima, a cartoonist who needs no introduction to readers of this site, as I’ve been doing my damndest to champion her work to anyone willing to listen for the last couple of years now. Her short “comic essay” is densely multi-faceted, as is her custom, offering a rumination not just on her time in Miami, but on the concept of what’s loosely defined as “paradise” in a more general sense. Even as a creature of northern climes born and bred I was taken aback by the wistful and contemplative tone of this one, and of course Oshima’s trademark page layouts (four panels with text blocks above static images) are as integral to the overall mood of her work as they are to its pace — Dostoevsky is a major influence on her storytelling, and she’s emerging as comics’ nearest equivalent to him, which I assure you is no exaggeration even if it sounds like one.

What we’ve got here in total, then, is not only a very well-done anthology comic, but one that manages to balance universal themes with those specifically centered around, and bearing the imprimatur of, the atmosphere, flavor, culture, and ethos of a specific part of the world. It’s of South Florida, to be sure, but not necessarily chained to it — but by “going local,” as it were, and financing his ‘zine by means of local patronage, Neil Brideau isn’t just doing the cartooning scene in his area “a solid,” he’s showing one more way forward for comics in general.

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Spiny Orb Weaver #1 is available for $10.00 from the Radiator Comics website at https://www.radiatorcomics.com/shop/minicomics/spiny-orb-weaver-no-1/

Review wrist check – Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “George” brown leather strap from their “Performance” series.

Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Single Issues

Is it that time of year again? Why yes, indeed, it is that time of year again — specifically, the end of the year, and with it my end-of-year “Top 10” lists. As usual, things are divvied up into six categories : Top 10 Single Issues (stand-alone comics or comics that are part of an ongoing series that saw only one issue published this year), Top 10 Ongoing Series (serialized comics that saw two or more issues published in the past year), Top 10 Special Mentions (“comics-adjacent” projects such as ‘zines, books on comics history, art books or sketchbooks, or books that utilize words and pictures but don’t adhere to traditional rules of sequential storytelling), Top 10 Vintage Collections (books that reprint work originally published prior to the year 2000), Top 10 Contemporary Collections (books that reprint work originally published, physically or digitally, after the year 2000 and going right up to the present day), and Top 10 Original Graphic Novels (all-new books specifically constructed as graphic novels and were never serialized in installments). And with those ground rules out of the way, we’ll begin where we always do, with my choices for the year’s Top 10 single-issue or stand-alone comics :

10. Goiter #5 By Josh Pettinger (Tinto Press) – After four issues, Pettinger exits the self-publishing ranks and the extra time devoted purely to craft pays off with one of his most surreal and absorbing character studies yet, as an underemployed teen become an unemployed teen and sees his life spiral out of control after being roped into an extra-legal murder investigation. The spirit of Clowes and Ware lives on in this series, but Pettinger’s authorial concerns and cartooning are now well and truly entirely his own.

9. The Garden By Lane Yates And Garrett Young (Self-Published) – A mysterious and ethereal love/horror story that reveals new depths with each reading, this is the most alluring narrative puzzlebox in quite some time. For all the wonderful qualities Yates’ story possesses though, it may just be Young’s art that steals the show/seals the deal/pick your cliche, as it transports readers to a truly alien world populated with achingly human characters rendered in exquisitely moody detail.

8. Flop Sweat #1 By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom Books) – The first installment in what promises to be a gripping childhood memoir from Ward, exploring the roots of alienation and “otherness” with sensitivity, honesty, and even a bit of humor. Ward is well and truly coming into his own as memoirist, and you’d be well-advised to get in on the ground floor with this book before everybody’s all over it. That way you can say you’re a cool and astute reader, ya know?

7. Five Perennial Virtues #11 – Broken Pieces By David Tea (Self-Published) – Perhaps the greatest iconoclast in all of comics produces the strongest issue of his long-running series to date — as well as the most accessible. Part history lecture, part absurdist fantasy, and all Dave Tea, this feels very much like “outsider art” until you realize the author actually understands the comics form implicitly — he just refuses to play by many of its established rules.

6. Mini Kus! #91 – Sufficient Lucidity By Tommi Parrish (Kus!) – The modern master of navigating the complexities of interpersonal relationships via the comics medium, here Parrish takes us on a journey by dropping us off very nearly at the end of it. Lavishly illustrated and economically scripted, this is pure emotion on the page, and will haunt your dreams long after reading it.

5. Rotten By M.S. Harkness (Self-Published) – Another painfully embarrassing, to say nothing of painfully funny, slice-of-life comic from Harkness, this one hitting home with extra wallop due to its chronological setting : right around the 2016 election. Still, it’s Harkness’ consistently-fearless portrayal of herself that stands out as the book’s most memorable, if occasionally disconcerting, feature. If you haven’t tried one of her long-form graphic novels yet, this is the perfect smaller “sample size” to dip your toes in, and trust me when I say you’ll immediately want more.

4. Tad Martin #8 – Tears Of The Leather-Bound Saints By Casanova Frankenstein (Fantagraphics Underground) -Encompassing everything from dystopian industrial hellscapes to childhood memoir and all points in between, Frankenstein’s latest outing featuring his constantly-evolving authorial stand-in takes the form of a deliberately disjointed “tone poem,” a one-man anthology focused on various stages of personal apocalypse. Shot through with grotesque “gallows humor” and caustically accurate social commentary, this is another tour-de-force from arguably our most uncompromising contemporary cartoonist.

3. Malarkey #5 By November Garcia (Birdcage Bottom Books) – Garcia closes out her masterful autobio series on a very high note amidst relentlessly dark times as she explores mortality from all sides, offering readers stories about life’s end in equal proportion to those centered around the little things that make life worth living. The pandemic looms large here but is, uncannily, never specifically referenced. Don’t ask me how she managed that — I’m just grateful that she did. No other comic captures the essence of life in 2020 like this one.

2. Theater Of Cruelty By Tana Oshima (Self-Published) – A sprawling yet agonizingly insular look at the vagaries of life that haunt its author and frankly haunt us all, this is “solo anthology” comics at their finest, weaving a dense tapestry of darkness from threads of fable, poetry, ancestral memory, and autobio. As surely beyond classification as it is beyond good and evil, Oshima’s magnum opus leaves you reeling in silence.

1. Constantly By G.G. (Koyama Press) – A bit of a cheat as this was packaged as a slim book, but slim is the key word — as in, 48 pages. That puts it firmly in the “single issue” camp by my admittedly subjective standards, but it nevertheless leaves an indelible mark with its austere art and minimalist language combining to explore both the roots and manifestations of doubt and anxiety, portraying a world where all tasks are monumental and likely pointless. Haunted within and haunting without, this is comics poetry at its apex as a medium and a bona fide masterpiece for the ages.

I’ll let you all absorb this list for a few days before returning with my picks for the the Top 10 Ongoing Series of the year!

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Review wrist check – Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “George” leather strap in brown from their “Performance” series.

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 if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

There’s A Front Row Seat Reserved For You In Tana Oshima’s “Theater Of Cruelty”

Deep in the murky subterranean depths of your being, there are questions that can’t even be asked, much less answered. Hidden truths obfuscated by so many layers of denial and reification that the very act of keeping them hidden has become a central function of your identity. Or maybe that should be of both your identities — the one you’ve constructed for yourself, and the one you show the public. What you see is never what you get with either, of course, because you desperately want to avoid what you need to see just as desperately as you know you really should be doing no such thing. Think of those parties you went to in your twenties that you knew your ex was going to be at and there was nobody in the world you wanted to see less, and nobody in the world you wanted to see more, than them — only there’s no ex here, this internal conflict is with your own self.

That’s where Tana Oshima’s comics begin, and as for where they go — well, they take you places, that’s for sure, and in her new “solo anthology” book, Theater Of Cruelty, which she’s self-published as a very nice and sturdy little squarebound paperback, she takes you to more places than ever. And proves with every page that the title she chose is no mere catchy attention-grabber — in fact, it’s a case of straight-up truth in advertising.

Is the medium the message? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it is : herein Oshima certainly employs a lot of the former in service of the latter, utilizing pen and ink, paints, sumi inks, possibly toilet paper(?), and even stuff from the kitchen cabinet to convey — primarily in English but also in Spanish and, momentarily, about a dozen other languages — a sense of loss of self from the self, whether this exile is precipitated by a noisy neighbor, a vivid dream, a reality that seems like a vivid dream, or a purely metaphorical construct. The longest “story” in here reads like a dusty folk tale, about an old woman too ugly to be seen, but the real ugliness lies in the hearts of the people who cannot stand to see her; the shortest entry is a message scrawled in numerous languages and non-Arabic alphabets that makes it clear that you are the “stranger in a strange land” this time around. Two sides, then, one coin — alienation both inflicted and inflicted upon, no “winner” regardless of which side the coin lands on.

Visual poetry, comics poetry, whatever you want to call it — this book is Oshima at her most lyrical, her most abstract, and yet also her most conceptually dense. Prior works hinted things were moving in this direction, rigorous self-examination as seen through myriad funhouse mirrors before being stripped of pretense and rendered raw — but how she would get there remained an open question. Yes, we still see some of her trademark four-panel grids — two pages of which are devoid of illustration — but that’s not to confine the expressive nature of this work in any way, nor to even strictly organize it per se : don’t get hung up on the delivery mechanisms here, people, this is a mainline injection of everything you can’t put words to but know to be true. Longing may be the biggest part of it, or perhaps more accurately the most readily-defined of its components, but peel away that layer, thick as it may be, and what’s underneath it is the soul-numbing fear that the abyss has already gazed back at you too intently, and that if you want to re-assemble the fragments of your authentic self, you’re on you own. And always were.

Which doesn’t actually preclude this volume from offering a few grim laughs, believe it or not — and well-earned ones, at that. None of them alleviate the pressures inherent in the task at hand, but I dunno — sometimes a moment’s pause can feel like a lifeline extended. And I don’t think Oshima is imparting a simple litany of gloom and doom here, nor of existential angst for its own sake. A game played for keeps is still a game, after all, even if the only rules is that all the rules are out the window. And the sheer fluidity of Oshima’s art and verse go some way toward cushioning what should, by all rights, be a bumpy ride. A darkness that lures you in is all well and good, but one that may not even be entirely dark? Hey, that’s even better.

You’d do well not to mistake that for an easy way out, though. This book has been moving from foreground to background and back and forth again (and again, and again) in my mind since I first read it a couple of days ago, and I imagine it will be doing that for quite some time. But then I suppose that’s to be expected when you meet a complete stranger — only to find that it’s yourself. I’d like to thank Tana Oshima for serving as a conduit for the introduction, but to be honest, that other me still scares the one that I delude myself into believing I already know pretty well.

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Theater Of Cruelty is available for $12.00 directly from Tana Oshima at https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/product/the-things-i-wrote-on-toilet-paper

Review wrist check – Longines “Legend Diver” riding a matte-finish “Supreme NATO” from Crown & Buckle in a color they call “olive hade,” but I just call olive green.

The Start Of Something Big : Tana Oshima’s “Pulp Friction”

I find it downright fascinating that Tana Oshima has gone back to press with her first self-published mini, Pulp Friction, not only because I’d never had the pleasure of reading it before, but because it frankly takes a certain amount of guts for an artist in any medium to draw attention to their “warts and all” earlier work at a point in their career ouevre when they’re in a really confident creative groove — and, as regular readers here already know, I think Oshima’s been in the midst of a very solid groove for some time now.  Which isn’t my roundabout way of saying that this debut effort is necessarily lacking, mind you — in fact, the “lower dose” of refinement with which she tackles subjects that are still very much at the heart of her ongoing artistic project lends this comic an extra degree of immediacy which more than makes up for what is absent in terms of tight focus. And on that note —

Relationships, specifically love in its various stages and manifestations, is the running theme of this book, and — like its title and logo — many of Oshima’s cursory examinations herein may be a bit too “on the nose” for those who appreciate subtlety and/or the art (and effort) of forming their own conclusions and interpretations of a cartoonist’s work, but at the same time she’s not out to hit you over the head with a hammer : on the contrary, most of these short strips and single-page comics (I counted 22 overall) occupy a kind of fascinating middle ground somewhere between laying all their cards on the table and being deliberately oblique. This is a rare thing to find, as artists generally gravitate toward either one polarity or the other, and as a result, any metaphorical “foothold” they establish under such conditions is going to be shaky by definition — but at the same time, it certainly makes for an intriguing balancing act to bear witness to.

And while we’re talking of cartooning, the fundamentals of what would come to be Oshima’s eventual “style” — wonderfully flexible as it is today — are all present and accounted for here, from the fine linework to the solid blocks of color to the geometric precision to the intentionally basic figure drawing, and while she’s clearly feeling her way forward with each of these elements, there is a sense of purpose implicit throughout, a feeling that she knows how and why she wants to draw the way she does, she’s just showing readers her process of arriving at that decision. This may be the kind of perspective one only gleans when exposed to Oshima’s later works first, but I’m not so sure — I’ve been around this small press and self-publishing scene a long time, and I like to think I can tell the difference between somebody who’s in the formative stages of finding their voice, and somebody who’s in the formative stages of establishing it. This ‘zine clearly points to the latter, and that’s a crucial distinction it has in its favor.

One thing that hasn’t changed in terms of Oshima’s overall approach, though, is her commitment to the quality of her physical product. Like all her minis, this is a richly-printed affair on high quality paper with sturdy cardstock covers, and for the organizationally-minded (which may just be a polite way of saying “anal retentive”), this slides into one’s longbox or onto one’s shelf right next to any other Tana Oshima comics perfectly. This kind of uniformity is definitely appreciated by this critic, who’s drowning in a sea of comics of every shape and size, but in the larger scheme of things it also means that she’s committed to exploring everything that can be done within a very specific dimensional construct. All of which makes things sound perhaps more “cosmic” than is my intent, but I assure you, it all makes perfect sense once you’ve got several of her publications in your hands.

The natural enough next question you probably (okay, possibly?) have then, is, if I had to guess : is this a good place to start if you’re new to Tana Oshima comics? And I have to confess I’m of two minds about that. On the one hand, it’s a more populist and accessible take on her absolutely singular approach to addressing certain of her core thematic concerns — loneliness, isolation, connection, trepidation, existential angst, compromising and/or subjugation of identity and agency, voluntarily or otherwise — and leans toward a light-hearted, occasionally downright humorous, exploration of them, but on the other it’s not exactly representative of her later, more considered (if sometimes bleak) and nuanced methodology and messaging. The answers come easy here, more often than not, and in that respect it’s perhaps best viewed as the evolutionary step that, hey, it just so happens to be.

What I do know for certain is this : as a bona fide and unabashed fan of Oshima’s comics, this is equally interesting for what it is and what it isn’t, for how it fits into her overall body of work and how it doesn’t, and as a skeletal roadmap that shows the directions she ended up taking, and those she steered clear of. I was transfixed by it for all these reasons and more, but I’m not certain Oshima herself would recommend this as a “jumping-on point” for readers new to her stuff. But what the hell do I know? I only work here.

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Pulp Friction is available for $8.00 from Tana Oshima’s Bigcartel site at :https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/product/pulp-friction-english

Review wrist check – today wasn’t technically the first day of fall, but it sure felt like it here in the Twin Cities, so it was goodbye to summer colors and hello to this dressier, more conservative combination of my Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “Arne” strap from their “Performance” series in olive green.

 

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 https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Tana Oshima’s “Nabokova” : As Dense As A Russian Novel, But Nowhere Near As Long

There’s beauty in simplicity, as the cover of Tana Oshima’s newest self-published mini, Nabokova, clearly demonstrates. It’s stark, perhaps even spartan, but deeply communicative and precisely thought through. It imparts its message with crystal clarity and nothing by way of fuss or muss.

But there’s beauty in complexity, too, and this comic is also proof positive of that, as we’ll get to shortly. And trust me — this really only scratches the surface of the contradictions and conundrums contained herein. Bring your hardhat, folks — this one takes some real work.

On a purely physical level, this is a book that exemplifies the kind of quality artistry and craftsmanship we’ve come to expect from Oshima in fairly short order — printed in rich colors and varying tones and gradations (blue being dominant in all things — okay, almost all things) on high-quality paper between heavy cardstock covers and exquisitely drawn, it’s an object you’ll enjoy holding in your hands as much as looking at, but please do take not :  it’s a whole heck of a lot heavier than it looks and feels.

Obviously, Russian literature has been a source of inspiration for Oshima throughout her brief-but-frankly-brilliant cartooning career, but here its influence is felt in everything from the self-chosen name of our ostensible “heroine” ( a term I use, I assure you, very loosely) to the richly oblique (again with the contradictions) symbolism of the world it takes place in to the internalized struggles that make up the narrative and thematic backbone of the strips themselves. And as far as those strips go —

The connections between them are in no way hidden, but neither are they spelled out plainly. I said bring a hardhat — you might want to pack a lunch, too. Oshima mines every panel for more conceptual density than you’d think her frequently-austere imagery would provide for, but the deeper you dig, the deeper still you usually find yourself needing to go. Cliches like “lots to unpack” (or, hey, “pack a lunch”) don’t even begin to cut it here. Literary references, visual metaphors, and text that can be read and interpreted in any number of ways are all par for the course on these pages, and understanding of this book is both earned and absolutely unique to each reader. That may make it sound like a chore — which, fair enough, it is — but it’s an immensely rewarding and satisfying one, and Oshima pays you back commensurate with the amount of effort you put in.

And that may actually represent the richest contradiction in a comic that’s packed to the seams with them (starting with a protagonist that’s in no way “likeable,” but almost undeniably lovable, and building out in all directions from there) : at the end of the day, for all its depth, all its nuance, all its allegory and intimation, all its mystery,  the core philosophical conceit animating anything and everything contained within Nabokova‘s multitudes is a disarmingly simple one : the more you give, the more you get back in return. To say anything more would be to say too much — get this comic now and get to work.

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Nabokova is available for $8.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/nabakova.html

And while you’re running around the internet looking for cool shit, please take a moment to consider subscribing to my Patreon, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants ad ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. The link for that is https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

“I’m Very Interested In The Margins” : The Four Color Apocalypse Interview With Tana Oshima

One the most intriguing new voices to emerge in cartooning over the past year has been Tana Oshima, and after reviewing her self-published minis VagabondFilthy, and Masquerade in recent weeks, I wanted to reach out to Tana herself and allow her to “have her say” in regards to her own work rather than subjecting you all to more of my blathering about it. Without further ado, then, here she is on her life, her work, her influences, and her aims, interspersed with images from two works in progress :  a short-form work entitled Nabokova, and a full-length graphic memoir.

4CA : By way of introduction to readers who may not be familiar with your work, what is your artistic background? Did you attend art school, or are you entirely self-taught?

TO : I didn’t attend art school. I was in Spain back then, and you had to pass an exam to get in the public school of Fine Arts. I was unprepared and untalented and failed the exam. I didn’t know how to paint or draw well. There are many self-taught artists out there who are incredible at drawing and painting, but that’s not my case. I still don’t know how to draw without reference. I don’t know how to draw a car or a horse or most of the human gestures. And I have very limited technique. In my works, I just draw what I can draw. 

4CA : What made you decide on comics as your medium of choice? Have they always been of interest to you, or did you try your hand elsewhere first? If so, do you continue to work in other media to this day?

TO : I was a writer before I became a “drawer”. I love writing and I think it’s what I do best, if anything, though I still find it really, really hard to do it well (definitely not in English, which is frustrating because I live in an English-speaking country). It’s funny because for years I did both things separately —writing for newspapers and magazines, and then drawing in my spare time and writing a lot of fiction that remains unpublished. I hadn’t thought of making comics until a friend of mine told me I should try to blend those two “skills”. I remember telling her: “Oh I’m too lazy to make comics.” But then I tried making one, and loved it. That was in 2013 or 2014. I think comics are potentially a “whole” art form, a very rich art form because it requires a careful handling of two very powerful languages, the linguistic and the visual. It activates different parts of your brain when you’re making them.

At the beginning I had some trouble integrating the words in my comics. It felt like I was using words just as a narration tool and I wasn’t happy with that. I wanted words to be heavily charged with meaning, and, if possible, tell their own story, slightly independent from the images, overlapping with the images. It took some time until I learned how to balance that out. Words, when combined in certain ways, have a fascinating, multilayered complexity; that’s the magic of writing. You can achieve that multidimensionality with images too, but I have yet to explore that.

I’ve done some painting in the past, but mostly mere exercises for beginners. I have many limitations right now, in terms of time, space and money. So I stick to the fastest, the smallest and the cheapest medium and materials.

4CA : As I see it, the immigrant experience is a near-constant theme in your work : your stories consistently, and quite literally, reflect the “stranger in a strange land” perspective. Is this a result of your own family experience?

TO : Yes, it’s the result of my own experience. My experience hasn’t always been that of an immigrant (although I am now an immigrant, I guess), but they both have many things in common. My sense of perpetual foreignness comes at an almost exclusively existential level, as a result of not belonging anywhere. This lack of sense of belonging hasn’t been a choice for me. It’s not something I’d brag about; it’s a feeling I don’t like and it’s a manifestation, I think, of how the world works. The need people have to trace borders, to identify with homogeneous groups and so-called nations, to reinforce otherness and others’ strangeness, those are things that have occupied my mind since I was very young. 

4CA :  Following on from that, alienation and isolation are also part and parcel of the life of your recurring protagonist. Without wishing to get too personal, is hew viewpoint intrinsically linked to your own? To what degree does she function as a stand-in for her author?

TO : Most of my characters have a lot of autobiographical elements. The isolation you mention is the existential loneliness that comes from not belonging, not having a place you can call yours or a place that others identify as yours. I can try to convince myself that I am from a certain place, that I won’t really belong as long as the people from that place don’t consider me one of them.

I was born in Japan but was never considered Japanese because my mother is Spanish. So I was born a foreigner in my own country, so to speak. Being mixed at the time in Japan was very stigmatized, especially if you had Western blood, because they could see it right away. We had to leave Japan because of that, and we landed in Peru. I was a child, so I thought “If I’m not good enough for Japan, I might be good enough for Peru”. But it didn’t turn out that way. I was still a foreigner, and I was an Asian in another very racist country. I spent the rest of my childhood and adolescence between Argentina, Spain, Japan and France and changed schools 11 times, so I was always the foreigner, the stranger. But I feel privileged and lucky and grateful for the life I’ve had so far and the people I’ve met and this unusual sense of freedom that comes with loneliness.

As for my life in the US, which I elaborate to some degree in “Filthy”, it’s more about surviving here while not being American enough. I love the diversity in America and the fact that there are so many immigrants and foreigners, but you still need to have a certain amount of “American-ness” to blend in. It’s natural, we humans do that. We’re all ethnocentric. America is a super-superpower and that impacts our daily lives and the way Americans see themselves, even in the most progressive and open minds. On a practical level, I can see that not having graduated from an American university (or any other school that has a place in the American social imaginary), or not being an English native speaker are circumstances that place you at the bottom of the line. I’m not sure that happens all the way around, if an American tried to find a job in a foreign country. (Americans tend to be seen as valuable assets elsewhere, I think. You guys have the most powerful passport in the world!). So, as a foreigner, you know that what you bring is more or less useless here when it comes to finding a job, which is key to survival. But art is different. Art knows no borders. Or maybe it does, but those borders are of a very different nature. I shouldn’t be complaining anyway. It’s a minor struggle in my case. For one thing, I can always leave. But it’s a real, serious struggle for many other people.

4CA :  There is also a surreal or dream-like flavor to much of your work. Do your ideas literally come to you in dreams?

TO : Haha no, not really. Not while I’m sleeping at least. I’m just trying to stay away as much as I can from “literality.” I like it more when reality is inspired, or inferred, rather than told. I tend to think that there’s more reality in a poem than in a history book. I’m not sure how to define reality anyway.

4CA :  I’ve noticed recurring imagery features in all your stories to date, particularly those black and white tubes. Are they indicative of anything specific? When did you first start “seeing” them in your mind’s eye?

TO : Those tubes are part of my daily landscape ever since I moved to NYC. I’m surrounded by them, and I see beauty in them. They are charged with meaning. They come from the underground and they somehow connect different worlds. They represent some sort of hardship and adversity that comes from living in a big city, but I also turned them into symbols of the “underworld”, which can be the unconscious, or the margins. I’m very interested in the margins as a place, as a mental, societal and existential space where people end up for a variety of circumstances. Not a nice place to be in.

4CA :  To date, all of your work has been self-published. Do you find that a taxing experience, or do you appreciate the absolute freedom it offers? Maybe both?

TO : I love the absolute freedom of the self-publishing act. I hope I can self-publish forever. And I am lucky to be in the US because here you have distributors like Domino Books and a real, however small, independent comics market. But I also need to make more money and I’ll look for different ways to increase my earnings while making comics. I know, it sounds like a joke. Probably an oxymoron. 

4CA :  Picking up on that, do you have aspirations to work with any larger publishers in the future? Are you readying any “pitches” for strips or books?

TO : I would like to work with publishers to reach more people, maybe, or a more diverse pool of readers. I make comics primarily to communicate with people, so yeah I’d like to reach more of them. Doesn’t have to be a lot of them. I know there’s a lot of romanticism surrounding the self-publishing world and I agree that it’s great, and I love the informality and the independence of it, but I also need to ensure myself a place. My priority right now is to make a living in this country, in this expensive city, which is of course the priority for most of us living here. Another great thing, though, about self-publishing is that I publish in Spanish too whenever I can afford it. Most of my readers in Spanish are Miami-based Cubans, and I love that. They are very communicative.

4CA :  So far the mini-comic has been your format of choice. Do you see any longer-form works in your future, perhaps even a graphic novel?

TO : I recently started working on a graphic memoir. It only covers my childhood years in Peru. There was a war situation there, a conflict between the army and the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla that became very violent. We were in a permanent state of emergency, under the martial law. There was a curfew, violence, and much, much misery. There was an apartheid-like situation against the Quechua and Aimara peoples, who are the majority of the Peruvian population. I’d never seen anything like what I saw in Peru at that time, and have never seen it later in life. Those people were pushed to the furthermost limits of the human psyche. And that was happening in front of my eyes. So I thought I’d tell this story in comics format, but I’m having some conflicting feelings with the non-fiction aspect, as I mentioned before, and with the fact that the story is so racially charged. I want to keep it as poetic, as non-political as possible, and that’s challenging for a memoir of this kind, at least for me.

4CA :  Any particular artistic influences you’d care to give a “shout-out” to while you have the chance?

TO : The main influences that I’m aware of are, I think, Richard Brautigan, Merleau-Ponty and David Lynch. And probably books I read during the past years. Visually speaking, I think Chagall can be my main influence. And, again, David Lynch. And maybe some manga and Ukiyoe, too, tangentially. I feel like I haven’t read enough comics (except for manga, growing up) so I’m trying to catch up now. 

4CA : Process question : what are your drawing implements of choice? Do you draw on paper, or a tablet?

TO : I draw on paper. I don’t have a tablet and it’s a pain in the ass to draw on my computer. I then color it with markers or crayons or just black ink. But I often color digitally just because it’s the cheapest, the fastest, and the smallest way to do it. 

4CA : Lastly, the floor is yours. Anything you’d like the world — or the tiny corner of it that reads this site, at any rate — to know about Tana Oshima that we haven’t covered already?

TO : I have two kids.

Thank you, Tana! For more information about her ‘zines and comics, please check out https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/

Also, this interview — and everything else around these parts, truth be told — is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. You patronage there not only keeps things going, it also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I recently lowered the minimum monthly “subscription” price to a dollar, and given that there’s a bunch of stuff up on there already, trust me when I say you’re sure to get great value for your money, and needless to say — but I’m saying it anyway — I’d be very gratified to have your support.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

A Tana Oshima Double-Bill : “Masquerade”

There’s a particular line in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell that has always stuck with me : Netley, who’s assisting the Moore/Campbell iteration of Jack The Ripper, Sir William Withey Gull, with his monstrous work is having an entirely understandable existential freak-out and says “I don’t know where I am anymore,” to which Gull replies that they are in a “radiant abyss where men meet themselves.”

I suppose that must be true. When you do something that’s so far beyond the pale, so undeniably evil, then you’re forced to confront yourself , to acknowledge what you’re capable of, to either live with it or go completely insane — maybe both.

In more recent years, another diamond-sharp Moore line that resonated deeply came in his superb Lovecraftian masterpiece done with artist Jacen Burrows, Providence, which at one of its most harrowing points shows its protagonist, Robert Black, sexually assaulting a young girl — only it’s Black’s mind in the girl’s body, and the mind of an ancient, parasitic, brain-swapping occultist inside Black. His body is literally raping “him,” and the attacker inhabiting it tells Black that under such consciousness-shredding circumstances, “one begins to question the very phenomenon of identity itself.”

A lot of my friends in the “indie” comics scene give me shit for reading Alan Moore stuff — a lot of my friends are depriving themselves of some of the best, most powerful work out there.

I have no idea whether or not Tana Oshima reads Moore — her four-panel grids and first-person “internal monologue” narration are reminiscent of Moore and Maark Beyer’s The Bowing Machine story from Raw volume two, number three, but those are tropes utilized by any number of cartoonists in any number of comics — yet in her forthcoming self-published mini, Masquerade (handsomely presented on heavy “construction”-type paper between card-stock covers in blueish grays and grayish blues, yellow-greens and green-yellows) she addresses, in the space of just 16 pages, both themes presented so starkly in those Moore quotes, yet does so in a manner entirely, and wonderfully, all her own.

Taking the form of a either a dream or, maybe even more intriguingly, a waking dream, Oshima here — by means of her stand-in protagonist — encounters faceless figures, a physically-empty-but-conceptually-packed farmhouse, and other random strangenesses that all seem to reflect buried, or at the very least obfuscated, aspects of herself. I think.

Alienation is a constant in Oshima’s work, but herein the alienation is fully internalized, the various scenarios depicted suffused with surrealism and in no way tied to anything like consensus “reality.” Always apart, always alone, always a step or more removed from “the flow,” here she takes advantage of the physical and metaphorical distance between herself and others to forge new connections-at-a-remove with shadowy, masked, or shadowy and masked phantoms, all of which tell her more about herself than they do about themselves — leading one to actively wonder whether or not they even “exist” outside her own mind.

There’s even more than a not-so-simple examination of identity going on here, though — Oshima is also, by means of the farmhouse, examining whether or not the act of making art can possibly bridge and/or resolve the gulf between herself and her understanding of herself. Does creativity bring her closer to the answers she seeks? Does it at least offer a way to express her questions? Don’t expect a resolution, of course, but —

Maybe?

There’s an intriguing epilogue that sees both the tone and style of the writing change, and the art shift to a “reverse-negative” black and white that takes things in new and unexpected directions, perhaps, but also introduces familiar Oshima elements, such as the tubular pipes/potential portals, that have made their presence more felt than known in her other comics. Could she, then, have come all this way — only to end up looking at herself from the other side of a mirror?

The implication is there. The hard-and-fast “answer” is not. But I’m not so sure it really matters. One way or another, in Masquerade, Tana Oshima goes everywhere by going nowhere, meets herself by never leaving herself, and finds herself — exactly where she started? Or, perhaps more accurately, where she has been all along.

But that still doesn’t mean that she knows where — or who — she is. Apart from being one of the most compelling contemporary cartoonists around, of course.

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Austin English should have this comic up for sale soon at the Domino Books online store. Check for updates at http://www.dominobooks.org/store.html

For more about Tana Oshima’s other comics and ‘zines, visit https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/

Please consider supporting my work by joining my Patreon. I recently lowered the price to a dollar, and you get exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings from yours truly on the worlds of comic, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics.

Oh, and here’s a link for that, too :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

 

A Tana Oshima Double-Bill : “Filthy”

For some cartoonists, 16 pages is all it takes to fully transport readers into a new and unfamiliar frame of mind that they come to know as intimately as their own (for good, ill, or both) by the time it’s over.

Well, okay, maybe for one cartoonist — that cartoonist being the remarkable Tana Oshima.

I raved about one of Oshima’s previous self-published efforts, Vagabond, on this very site in the none-too-distant past, but now she has two new minis soon to be released, both boasting superb production values (heavy-duty paper between thick, card-stock covers) and yours truly is genuinely honored to provide you, dear reader, with advance reviews of both. Filthy is the logical of the two (the other being Masquerade) to start with in that it both expands upon and, remarkably, deepens themes that carry over from Vagabond — namely the alienation, isolation, and de facto ostracization (is that even a word?) that are, depressingly, part and parcel of the immigrant experience — but does so in a manner more surreal, lyrical, and visually poetic than its predecessor.

Stop and consider that for a minute if you would, please, because Vagabond was already one of the “more surreal, lyrical, and visually poetic” comics in recent years.

Our unnamed protagonist this time out (although one, as always, in safe to infer it’s more or less Oshima herself) inhabits a shifting physical landscape that retains an aura of squalor and borderline-hopelessness whether it’s “presently” constituted as a motel, a movie theater, or an elaborate rocketship-style construct, and I put quotation marks around “presently” quite deliberately : time, you see, moves differently in an Oshima comic, and tends to circle back on itself rather than simply “progress” — which is probably a purely academic concern anyway given that the motel, the movie theater, and the rocketship-style construct are all, as it turns out, the same place.

Which, trust me, only sounds confusing — the dream-like character of this story actually makes a highly intuitive type of sense, and contains enough recognizable “real-world” elements for just about anyone to relate to it immediately. Struggles with hygiene, intimacy (with both others and oneself), gainful employment, affordable housing, and crushing student debt are a sad reality for millions, and while only some people are confronted with all these challenges at the same time, reading about a person facing them concurrently doesn’t feel so much like a case of “piling on” as it does an honest accounting of the lives of millions that we at least know about, maybe even know personally.

Sparse and expressive imagery complements the fluid-but-austere internal monologue that makes up the entirety of the narrative for a very holistic piece of sequential-art storytelling here, and the blue-gray tones Oshima contrasts her economically-deployed black lines with gives this “world” a feeling that’s appropriately bleak, but not without its charms. Rather, I suspect, much like the day-to-day lives of far too many “twenty-somethings” to count. Yes, elements of the fantastic abound herein — those tubes Oshima populates her strips with sure do bring to mind Jeff Nicholson’s criminally under-appreciated Through The Habitrails — but they feel like they “belong,” whereas the protagonist/authorial stand-in herself frequently doesn’t.

Which, of course, is the point — it could probably even be argued that it’s the entire point. And no one communicates the perspective of the genuine “outsider” with more sympathy and authenticity these days than Tana Oshima. Filthy represents the purest distillation of her ongoing artistic project to date and is not to be missed under any circumstances.

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Austin English should have this one up for sale on his Domino Books site fairly soon. Check for updates at http://www.dominobooks.org/store.htm

Find out more about Tana Oshima’s other comics and ‘zines at https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/

Please support me on Patreon , as well — I’ve recently lowered the price to a buck a month, and you get three pieces of exclusive writing every week on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. I’d very much appreciate having your support and promise you great value for your money.

Oh, here’s a link for that, too :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse