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.