Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Original Graphic Novels

So — here we are. The end of the road as far as our year-end “Top 10” lists go and, I would imagine, the one of most interest to the greatest number of readers — my picks for favorite original graphic novels of 2018, emphasis on the word “original.” One of our selections started life as a mini-comic, but was fleshed out greatly to become what it is today, while everything else on the list is a wholly original, not-previously-serialized work, designed and constructed especially for release in the “graphic novel” format. I think that’s about all the preamble required, so pardon me while I roll up my sleeves and type my ass off for a few minutes —

10. Monkey Chef By Mike Freiheit (Kilgore Books) – Our resident “rule-breaker” is first out of the gate, a book whose eventual greatness was hinted at in some self-published minis, but really came into its own when completed and collected between two covers. Freiheit’s autobiographical saga of his time cooking for primates (and their evolutionary descendants) in South Africa while falling in love with someone halfway across the world is possibly the most flat-out enjoyable read of the year, as well as a spectacular showcase for his fully-emerged skills as both illustrator and colorist. If Hollywood’s paying any attention, this would make a great movie — but it’ll always be an even better comic.

9. The Winner By Karl Stevens (Retrofit/Big Planet) – Another autobio book? Why yes, it is, and a downright spectacular one at that, as Stevens shines a brightly illuminating light on “the artist’s life” of underemployment, addiction/recovery, and the never-ending struggle to find both something worth saying and a way to say it. Illustrated in a breathtaking variety of styles with painstaking attention to detail as well as care and emotion to spare, this book is also an understated but deeply moving verbal and visual love poem to his wife and muse. Genuine tour de force stuff in every respect.

8. Poochytown By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)  – The first of three essentially wordless books on this list (take that to mean what you will about my own discipline as a reader — or, rather, lack thereof), Woodring’s latest excursion into the “Unifactor” results in his most harrowing, “trippy,” lushly-rendered, and hilarious “Frank” story yet. So goddamn charming it’s almost painful — but it’s the kind of pain that feels really good and looks even better.

7. I Am Young By M. Dean (Fantagraphics) – Heartfelt, bold, and addictively page-turning — to say nothing of absolutely gorgeous to look at — Dean’s examination of love’s sudden arrival and slow-burn diffusion is virtuoso work, each page replete with raw and honest emotion and eye-poppingly beautiful illustration. Love hurts, yeah, you know it and I know it — but you’re gonna love this book precisely for that fact, rather than in spite of it.

6. Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters By Alex Degen (Koyama Press) – A sci-fi silent movie rendered in lavish and explosive color that’s part breakneck adventure yarn, part dystopian nightmare, and all unique unto itself, Degen throws down a gauntlet here that few should even attempt to pick up, simply because no one else speaks his entirely self-created sequential art language. “Like nothing before or since” is the starting point of this book rather than the end result — go with its flow, and end up somewhere entirely and alluringly unexpected.

5. Lawns By Alex Nall (Kilgore Press) – One of the most exciting new talents to come along in the last few years, Nall “puts it all together” in his strongest work yet, a vaguely Lynch-ian examination of one small town resident’s quest to simply be left the fuck alone to live his life, his way. We’ve been hearing a lot about comics that capture the “cultural moment” in 2018, and while I intend no offense to works like Sabrina or A House In The Jungle, the simple truth of the matter is that, for my money, this book manages that task with much more humor, heart, and deceptive ease than its “fellow travelers” by a country mile. Where and who we are is a deep and profound question, of course, but equally important is whatever answer we come up with. I would submit that Nall hits the nail precisely on the head in that regard, and does so in a manner that almost anyone can relate to.

4. In Christ There Is No East Or West By Mike Taylor (Fantagraphics Underground) – This one arrived late and shook up the preliminary “running order” of my entire list more or less immediately. A metaphysical travelogue of the soul that journeys inward precisely at a time when so many comics are focused outward, Taylor’s book resonates so deeply and so strongly that reading it is akin to an epiphany — and the fact that it boasts arguably the finest production values of the year certainly doesn’t hurt, either. My God, that fold-out poster cover! Even leaving aside the bells and whistles, though, this is about as confident and unforgettable an artistic and philosophical statement of intent as you’re likely to encounter in this medium of ours this year — and possibly for many to come.

3. The Lie And How We Told It By Tommi Parrish (Fantagraphics) – Don’t let the amorphous and eternally transient (in every sense of the word) nature of Parrish’s dual protagonists fool you, this is a story that knows exactly what it’s doing, even if the characters in neither of its concurrent narratives seem to. Picture one raw nerve spread out over the course of well over a hundred pages and getting thinner and more frayed as it goes and you’re getting some idea of what’s going on in this comic, even though it’s ostensibly simply “about” two estranged friends catching up on their lives after a chance meeting, and the book one of them finds along the way. Parrish’s vibrant painted comics certainly have a singular look to them, but it’s the singular way the cartoonist grapples with issues of personal, sexual, gender, and body identity that makes them one of the most ground-breaking and challenging talents to come along in — just about ever, really.

2. Grip Vol. 1 By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – A non-stop tidal wave of action, dynamism, and unapologetic feminism that leaves the need for dialogue and captions in the dust, Westvind manages to do something hitherto-unseen in this book by marrying superhero tropes with a salute to working women (particularly those in the so-called “blue collar” trades) to create the most visually stimulating comic of the year, but also one that fully engages the mind and heart as surely as it does the eyes. One of the most powerful comics to come down the pipeline in ages, actually, but ultimately even more notable for how empowering it is. Simply put — prepare to be blown away.

1. Qoberious Vol. 1 (Self-Published) – As thematically and conceptually dense as it is physically slim, the debut graphic novel by the mysterious (and pseudonymous) D.R.T., rendered in a style that most approximates the look of weathered or otherwise-muted animation cels, is something I honestly don’t think this medium has ever produced before : a work that not only reveals new depths with each successive re-read, but literally forces you to interpret and analyze it in entirely new ways. I’ve read it something like 20 times now, and no two experiences have been the same, even if certain themes (physical bondage, alienation from society, from family, and even from oneself) persist. Readers will be poring over this one for decades to come, unable to even verbalize the nature of the feelings it elicits, never mind how and why it manages to do so. An artifact from another, infinitely more artistically advanced, civilization than our own, language is too outmoded a tool for expressing the sheer sense of admiration and amazement I have for what is unquestionably my pick for book of the year.

And so — that’s 2018, boiled down to six lists. I read a lot of other good stuff, as well as plenty of crap, in the past 12 months, and would sincerely like to thank those of you who came along for the ride and made the first year of Four Color Apocalypse a bigger success (in terms of sheer readership numbers, at any rate) than I ever could have possibly imagined. Next week we get back down to business as usual, and start the long, but no doubt enjoyable, process of finding out what the best books of next year are going to be!

The Truth About “The Lie And How We Told It”

Cartoonist Tommi Parrish comes to us from Montreal by way of an Australian upbringing, but their (as a gender non-binary individual, Parrish’s pronouns of choice are “they” and “their”) perspective seems to be a heady blend of the highly singular and the undeniably universal — and if that sounds inherently contradictory, then buckle in for a review that’s going to make your head spin, because the underlying tension between disparate polarities, both personal and artistic, forms the beating thematic heart of their new Fantagraphics-published graphic novel, The Lie And How We Told It, and how you process duality is going to go a long way toward determining your level of enjoyment of/appreciation for this work. In short, if it already sounds like it’s not going to be your cup of tea, then it probably won’t be — but if explorations of who we are vs. who we present ourselves as are something you find worthwhile and challenging, then you’re really going to dig what Parrish is serving up here.

The short of it : a happenstance reunion of two old high school friends at a supermarket — Tim who’s shopping there, Cleary who works there — leads to a night of walking, talking, and bar-hopping. The pair were close once upon a time, but something either drove or wormed a wedge between them and they clearly have difficulty communicating what probably would once have been easy. The basics are easy enough (Tim’s happy to volunteer that he’s about to get married, Cleary is in no way hesitant to ‘fess up to the fact she’s just coming off a break-up), but the things they both want and need to fill each other in on? Those are considerably more tricky, as it means each will need to let their guard down not only about who they are now, but who they used to be, back when they were thick as thieves and thought they knew each other well.

Enter One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand by one Blumf McQueen, an illustrated (self-published?) book that Cleary finds tucked away under a bush while waiting for Tim outside a liquor store. About the only visual cue that this “book-within-a-book” is a product of the same imagination as the story “proper” is Parrish’s penchant for drawing people in a bulky, ovoid manner — gone are the lushly painted (or, more likely, a digital approximation thereof) colors of the main narrative, finely-detailed B&W linework taking their place at the same time as crisp, semi-stylized prose (the last four pages of which, according to the back-page credits, were written by someone else) shoves aside stilted, naturalist dialogue. It’s a tale of love turned to disdain turned to abandonment in short order, and of course there are parallels easily enough drawn between the relationship trajectory of its stripper-and-a-divorced-guy protagonists and the largely-unremarked-upon rift that grew (and is growing again?) between Cleary and Tim, but it’s not like each is a pure mirror of the other; Parrish is both too skilled and too ambitious a cartoonist to be that cut-and-dried about anything, and limning the points of convergence and divergence between the stories is more than a simple intellectual exercise, in that the “conclusions” (impermanent as they are) of each can be viewed as reflective, sure, but also instructive, given that questions of what-could-have-been as well as what is factor into both pretty heavily.

One question that haunted me on both read-throughs of this book(s) I made last night is whether or not there’s an ounce of sympathy to be found in the worldview communicated by Parrish here — Tim is struggling with his sexual identity, but not mature enough to face said struggle in any meaningful way, choosing instead escape through actions that show him to be an “eternal adolescent,” if not outright infantile, while Cleary, for her part, seems fully at ease with her queerness (is it okay for a hetero critic to use that term? I honestly don’t want to piss anyone off), but seems to have arrived at that semi-solace by means of emotional detachment. Tim will only admit to fucking guys after a few drinks and by prefacing tales of his “conquests” with “I’m not gay, but —,” while Cleary smashed the closet doors a long ago and is totally open about who she likes to fuck — but love seems to be something neither of them admits to needing, which rather reduces their odds of finding it something near zero.

The fluidity of the characters’ appearance stands in stark contrast to the aforementioned emotional intransigence of each, and certainly has to be intentional on Parrish’s part, as if they are saying that no matter what we look like, not to mention no matter what we say or no matter the image of ourselves we try to project, we are what we are and that’s all that we are (apologies to Popeye). I don’t think they’re saying that change is impossible (although such a reading of the material is hardly out of the question), but that it can only come from within, and only when we are willing to do what, for many, is the toughest slog of all — being honest with ourselves. Now, whether or not the mystery of our own identities is a result of the facade we put on for public show being internalized,  or whether said public facade is an external expression of pre-existing confusion and/or insecurity?  That’s a quandary Parrish is bold enough to raise, but honest enough to admit they don’t have the answer to — and, really, does anyone?

The last few pages of The Lie And How We Told It play out as sheer inevitability — you can’t see things “ending” any other way. But that doesn’t mean the journey to get to that point isn’t endlessly though-provoking, even borderline invigorating in its refusal to play the reductivist “either/or, if/then” narrative game. In both story and art, Parrish gives voice to the full dichotomy and hypocrisy of individuality itself — at once lavish and austere, frank and disingenuous, wide open and closed off, honest and insincere, it is a book about everything disguised as one about not much at all — and an early front-runner for  best graphic novel of the year.