Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

Here it is, the final “top ten” list in our year-end wrap, and probably the one people are most interested in. Books in this category are comprised of all-new material, never serialized in single issues or online, and constructed specifically for the so-called “graphic novel” format. And your “winners” are —

10. Blood And Drugs By Lance Ward (Birdcage Bottom Books) – A visceral, harrowing firsthand account of addiction and recovery on the social and economic margins by a cartoonist with a busted hand. One of the most immediate and unmediated works in recent memory, this one will leave an indelible mark on your brain.

9. The Structure Is Rotten, Comrade By Viken Berberian And Yann Kebbi (Fantagraphics) – Exploring architecture and gentrification as inherently political topics, this exquisitely-illustrated book has much to say about damn near everything,  yet never feels like a treatise or lecture. There’s nothing rotten about it at all, comrade.

8. Theth : Tomorrow Forever By Josh Bayer (Tinto Press) – Incorporating elements of memoir and metafiction to tell this remarkable coming-of-age tale, Bayer uses genre to explore deeply personal topics and to paint a portrait of a life that could well and truly “go either way.” Utterly unique stuff that will make you glad your late-teens and/or early-twenties are over with.

7. The Death Of The Master By Patrick Kyle (Koyama Press) – Meet the new boss, same as — ah, you know the drill. But you’ve never seen that axiom bought to life in such a formally inventive and wryly satirical manner. Kyle is in full command of his considerable gifts here, and you pass on it at your peril.

6. Gender Queer By Maia Kobabe (Lion Forge) – An intellectually and emotionally resonant memoir of awakening that addresses issues of gender and sexuality, or their absence, with frankness, insight, honesty, and even a little bit of humor. One of the year’s most important and engagingly-drawn books.

5. Pittsburgh By Frank Santoro (New York Review Comics) – A lavishly-illustrated account of a family and a city’s declining fortunes and the oblique reasons behind them, this is the crowning achievement of Santoro’s career and a testament to the power of emotional survival and perseverance. As formally exciting as it is deeply personal, this is a book that richly rewards re-reading and reveals new thematic depth every time you do so.

4. Grip Vol. 2 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – The second volume of Westvind’s soaring, elegiac tribute to working women everywhere serves as both perfect companion piece to, and necessary extension of, the first. Bursting with dynamic action and illustration, this is a genuinely triumphant and transcendent work.

3. The Hard Tomorrow By Eleanor Davis (Drawn+Quarterly) – A moving and very much “of the moment” exploration of what it means to be human, to be involved in a relationship, and to bring new life into the world, Davis’ boldest and most ambitious work yet cements her reputation as one of our most important contemporary cartoonists. This is who we are, where we are, and what we hope for all wrapped up in one one visually sumptuous package.

2. Bezimena By Nina Bunjevac (Fantagraphics) – A searing and disturbing portrait of obsession and mania, this psychologically violent work is as essential as it is difficult, and Bunjevac’s amazingly detailed cartooning is the very definition of darkly alluring. Tough to read, sure, but absolutely impossible to forget.

1. How I Tried To Be A Good Person By Ulli Lust (Fantagraphics) – A towering achievement in the field of comics memoir, Lust’s dense and thorough-going examination of a pivotal and formative period of her life leaves no stone unturned and stands out for its absolute emotional honesty. Brave, confident, and visually literate in the extreme, this is one of those rare books that establishes its author as a true master of the medium.

And we’re done! It’s been quite the task compiling all these lists, but I suppose that was to be expected — after all, it’s been quite a year. 2019 saw more quality comics releases than anyone could possibly keep up with, and to call that a “good problem to have” is to sell the situation far short. In point of fact, we’re living in a new Golden Age of creativity and expression, and if you dig my ongoing coverage and analysis of it, then please consider 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. I’d be very grateful indeed to have your support, so do give it a look at




“The Death Of The Master,” The End Of An Era

Last month’s release of Patrick Kyle’s The Death Of The Master from Koyama Press was both an auspicious and somber occasion — auspicious because it marked the ambitious fleshing-out of a self-published mini into a 244-page “graphic novel” of remarkable texture and character, somber because it meant the end of the road for an exceptionally fruitful relationship between cartoonist and publisher that’s offered readers a privileged glimpse at the upward trajectory of the former’s artistic development with the latter’s full faith and support every step of the way. We’re all going to miss Annie Koyama’s publishing efforts when she fully transitions into “patronage mode” after next year, it’s true, but no one will miss her more than the talented people she’s shepherded from “promising newcomer” to “fully-formed, utterly unique creator.”

Certainly last year’s Roaming Foliage offered lead pipe-cinch evidence that Kyle had completed that trek from point A to point B, but like any artist worth their salt, he’s now pushing himself ever onward, forward, and upward, as this new work serves up a challenging piece of top-to-bottom absurdist “world-building” that is simultaneously funny, smart, idiosyncratic, and all too easy to relate to — which is no easy task considering that we’re talking about a society populated by vaguely dinosaur-ian “people” who are all engaged in the factory production of small edible (among other things, it would seem) balls and take their marching orders from the book’s titular (and delusional) master, who communicates by means of public loudspeaker system.

Employing one unique perspective shot after another, Kyle’s clean-line cartooning is ambitious in its ersatz simplicity, consistently inviting readers to decipher the meaning behind his “camera angle” choices and how they relate to the nuts and bolts of his tight ensemble-cast narrative. Since the title itself “spoils” the book’s crucial turning point I needn’t feel guilty for letting you know that the master does, indeed, die, but that’s more a beginning than end, as Kyle’s real raison d’etre here in an exploration of the nature of change itself, and the tension that arises between the polarities of “anything is possible now” and “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” It would be spoiling things to say which, if either, wins out here, but like any journey into the unknown, this one is about said journey every bit as much as its destination, and convincing arguments are made both for and against the status quo by means of the rich internal lives of Kyle’s magnificently-realized characters. If you’re getting the distinct sense that I’m having a tough time finding any flaws with this one, then I guess I’m doing something right.

Which isn’t to say that this story will appeal to all tastes, of course : it’s a work that requires readers to do a lot of the heavy interpretative work themselves, so while the entirety of its 224 pages can be absorbed on a purely liminal level in 30 minutes tops, if you devote the time to it that it both asks for and earns, you’ll find yourself exercising the ol’ gray matter for several hours, at least, and likely returning to it later. Around here, we just call that getting your money’s worth.

In fairness, though, for a dense and complex work, The Death Of The Master effectively disguises itself as anything but. Kyle’s greatest skill, in fact, is his ability to couch the genuinely thought-provoking within the context of the breezy, the fluid — the aesthetically innovative, sure, but at the same time the easily-digestible. Indeed, don’t be surprised if it takes a good 15-20 of this book’s (mostly) two-panel pages before it fully dawns on you that you’ve been lulled into something that you really need to think about. There’s an element of sleight of hand at play here, then, of —apologies to Dan Clowes — the iron hand in the velvet glove. And yet soothing and/or siren-calling can, in the right hands, be a far more compelling method of achieving full audience engagement than exposition or open confrontation, and if there’s one thing we know about Kyle at this stage of his career, it’s that his hands are definitely the right ones — indeed, they’re the only ones capable of telling the types of stories he wants to tell in the manner in which he wants to tell them.

It’s in no way an exaggeration, then, to say this is a singular work by a singular talent related by singular means — the very definition, in my book, of what auteur comics are all about, and one of the most interesting and accomplished reads of the year.


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