Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Ongoing Series

With my top ten single issues of 2019 in the rear view mirror, let’s move on to the top ten ongoing series. Any comic that saw two or more issues released in the past calendar year is eligible in this category and so, as you’d no doubt expect, the mainstream is represented much more on this list than it was in the last, given that most of their titles are still, theoretically, on a regular production schedule. There are a couple of elephants in the room that I’ll address at the very end, but let’s worry about that after you’ve read the “countdown,” shall we?

10. Wasted Space By Michael Moreci And Hayden Sherman (Vault Comics) – The first of two ensemble cast sci-fi series where every member of said ensemble is an asshole to make the “best of” cut this year, Moreci’s scripts for this book are heavy on the humor and class-conscious political messaging, while Sherman, who’s one of the busiest artists around these days, seems to bring an extra level inspiration and creativity to this title. Fun and smart in equal measure.

9. Go-Bots By Tom Scioli (IDW) – Perhaps the most surprising entry on the list simply because no one expected that a good comic about some third-rate Transformers knock-offs was even possible, but leave it to the great Scioli to make these robots seem more human than — well, humans, while cramming more ideas and visual “hooks” into any given page than most cartoonists can manage in an entire issue. IDW is onto something with this whole “give an indie guy a crack at a licensed property” idea, as we shall see as things go on.

8. All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape By Josh Bayer, Josh Simmons, Trevor Von Eeden, et. al. (Floating World Comics) – After an up-and-down first “season,” the aesthetic and thematic goals of the brothers Bayer (the other being Samuel)  are coming into pretty sharp focus in this late-Bronze Age homage. Some of that might be down to the addition of  Simmons as co-writer, and some of it is certainly down to the monumentally-underappreciated Von Eeden coming aboard as main artist and proving he certainly hasn’t lost a step, but whatever the case may be, this amalgamation of the over-and undergrounds is firing on all cylinders now.

7. Clue : Candlestick By Dash Shaw (IDW) – I told you we’d be getting back to IDW licensed books, and what a beauty this one was : the endlessly-inventive Shaw littered each of the three issues of this mini with clever puzzles and crafted one of the more compelling characters in comics this year with his iteration of Miss Scarlet. Innovative, engrossing, and consistently surprising, we’re talking about a legit gem here.

6. Outer Darkness By John Layman And Afu Chan (Image/Skybound) – Our second ensemble-cast-of-assholes science fiction series serves up at least one “pinch me, did I really just read that?” moment in each issue, as Layman crafts an epic that’s equal parts William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, while Chan delivers the visually-arresting goods in a style that demonstrates some strong anime influence yet remains utterly unique. You may not like anyone in this book, but you’ll love the book itself.

5. The Immortal Hulk By Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, et. al. (Marvel) – The first time a Marvel book has made my year-end list, but anyone who doubts my judgment clearly hasn’t been reading this comic. Ewing is doing for the Hulk what Alan Moore did for Swamp Thing, and Bennett blends Bernie Wrightson and Kelly Jones with early-era Image and jaw-dropping character designs, ably abetted by Jose’s faithful, non-flashy inks . The best super-hero book in a decade or more.

4. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen : The Tempest By Alan Moore And Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf/Knockabout) – Every bit as self-indulgent and self-congratulatory as its detractors claim, this extended “farewell tour” by Moore and O’Neill is nevertheless a heartfelt love letter to the characters and the medium they’re leaving behind as well as (crucially) the creators who came before them, who gave voice to the dreams and imaginings of countless generations — and were, of course, unconscionably ripped off for their troubles. One of the funniest and angriest comics of the year, and prima facie evidence that the comics landscape will be a far poorer place with these two, dare I say it, extraordinary gentlemen no longer part of it.

3. Love And Rockets By Jaime And Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Los Bros. have been reaching new plateaus since switching back to their original magazine format with this, the fourth “volume” of their justly-legendary series, and while I hate to pick favorites, Jamie’s Maggie and Hopey stories are perhaps the best they have ever been right now. Which doesn’t mean Beto isn’t on a real creative “high” right now himself — he surely is. So let’s just admit what we all know : as readers of this tile, we’re not just spoiled — we’re spoiled to an embarrassing degree.

2. This Never Happened By Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Probably the most divisive title on this list, but also the bravest. Anyone who mines the worst period of their life for a creative “battery charge” is entering into combustible territory, and while Graham doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to her portrayal of other folks, her sharpest barbs are aimed at herself and the crucial part she played in her own personal downward spiral. And the only thing bolder than the script is the art, which is Graham’s most emotive and self-assured to date. I won’t kid you, after reading the first issue I was a little worried if the cartoonist was mentally and emotionally okay, but after two installments it really hit me : the work itself is proof that she emerged from her crisis not just relatively intact, but flat-out inspired.

1. From Hell : Master Edition By Alan Moore And Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf/Knockabout) – Anyone who has a problem with me choosing a reprint series as the year’s best ongoing, have at it — because while you can criticize me all you want, the work in question is pretty well above reproach. I was as skeptical as anyone else that adding color to the proceedings would massively detract from the look and flavor of Moore and Campbell’s grimy (and no doubt accurate) interpretation of the Victorian era, but with the artist himself in charge of the palette, the results have ranged from “unobtrusive” to “amazing,” and the absurd levels of income inequality in today’s world, as well as the return of leaders who seem to believe they come from the “divine right of kings” school of “thought,” make this conspiratorial examination of the Jack The Ripper murders more relevant than ever. Even if it’s all bullshit, it’s still true.

And now for those elephants in the room —

Astute readers may have noticed that two perennial favorites didn’t make the cut this year, those being Jeff Lemire and Dean Haspiel’s Black Hammer and Eric Reynolds’ avant-garde anthology series Now. The reason for that is simple : while Black Hammer : Age Of Doom ended in very satisfactory fashion, the issue leading up to it felt hopelessly padded and derivative, and while Now rebounded nicely with its seventh and most recent issue, volumes five and six didn’t come close to meeting the standard set by the title early on. I’d be shocked if that comic in particular didn’t find its was back onto the list next year, but we don’t deal in speculation around these parts. You wanna make the cut in any given 12-month period, you gotta earn it.

Next — the top ten vintage collections of 2019. See you for that in a couple of days! In the meantime, if you’d like to support my ongoing work, 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. Do a jobbing freelancer a favor and check it out at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

If “This Never Happened,” Then Why All The Fuss?

If you’re a comics critic, the smart money is on not touching Alex Graham’s new self-published serialized “ongoing,” This Never Happened. Two issues in, it’s caused — and continues to cause — anything from ripples to seismic waves within the small-press community, depending on who you are and how close to Seattle you live.

I get it — I mean, shit, it’s a small scene, and some easily-recognizable figures within it are getting torched. Not with anything like the vengeful glee of Simon Hanselmann’s Truth Zone, but then, the folks on the receiving end of his barbs generally aren’t people he interacts with on a personal level frequently, much less former romantic partners. There’s a degree of distance between author and subject there, while Graham is offering no such safety. She’s putting you right inside her head, showing her lived experience, and — not to sound too cliched — “speaking her truth.”

Now, how much is the truth may (or may not) be an open question, and with the title itself Graham seems to be inviting such speculation, but —- ahh, fuck it, if I’m gonna put one foot in the minefield here, I may as well go for both. Good art is never safe. It never pulls its punches. And while all that’s easy to say, those words are empty unless and until we can say them, and have them be just as true, when the art in question casts people that we know, respect, and like in an unflattering light.

And I want to say, for the record, that the people Graham is “laying into” here are, in fact, people I know, respect, and like. I don’t want to trash any friendships with this review. But I also happen to think that, as self-performed exorcisms of personal demons go, This Never Happened is, at least so far, an awfully compelling one.

Graham’s protagonist in these comics is about as obvious an authorial stand-in as you’re likely to find, a comic rather than someone who makes comics being about the only distinction between herself and “her,” and if other people are concerned about how their own dopplegangers are going to come off in these pages they have every right to be, at least if the artist’s portrayal of her own damn self is anything to go by : neurotic in the extreme, barely clinging to the economic and societal margins, ostracized from her social milieu essentially by choice, painfully awkward, acutely depressed, and with a rather pronounced streak of body dysmorphia, the picture painted is of an individual with little to live for and, consequently, zero fucks left to give — for others, yes, but also for herself and her own well-being. Your heart  could easily break for her even as you realize so much of the damage she’s done is entirely self-inflicted, and yet

There’s no particular begging for sympathy going on here, at least as far as I can tell. If that were the case, then Graham would be portraying herself as a victim, and she pretty clearly is doing no such thing. Hell, the “rough draft” copy of issue one that I got even includes a postscript informing the handful of people who received it that she doesn’t want anyone to check in on her to make sure she’s okay because the comic makes it plain as day how she is doing and she has no particular burning desire to talk about it beyond what she’s put in there, thank you very much.

So — fair enough. Maybe it’s just down to the fact that I’m a longtime Ditko fan, but the idea of letting an artist’s work speak for itself and leaving it at that is old hat to me, and besides — there’s not much point offering help to someone who isn’t asking for it. Hell, she presents herself as being abrasive (intentionally and otherwise) so consistently throughout these two comics that she’s basically daring you to keep liking her : interjecting yourself into conversations you have no place in, cracking stupid, poorly-timed jokes, proselytizing for extreme positions such as mandatory sterilization for the stupid (and anyone else you don’t like), making consistently poor decisions — these aren’t exactly going to endear you to a reader no matter how much of a masochist they are.

Okay, sure, autobio comics have been fertile ground for the expression of extreme self-loathing since the days of Crumb, but even still this is a pretty relentless example of it, and comes to us entirely absent any sort of plea for understanding, much less a desire to cast the author’s flaws in even a nominally “endearing” light. There’s no “take it or leave it, this is who I am” happening here — more like “this is who I am, now just leave it.” In that respect then, yeah — this is one agonizingly difficult comic to read. Even so —

Let’s just give the benefit of the doubt and assume this negative self- presentation is entirely accurate. Would that mean that Graham deserves to be treated like shit? Because her depiction of a one-time paramour’s very shitty treatment of her is causing a lot of distress within the comics community, and in fairness is tinging this work with something of a “frontier justice” vibe about it. I’m concerned about how fair this may or may not be to the party in question, absolutely — and I’m even less comfortable with dragging in people who were only peripheral to their failed relationship — but I think we’re missing the forest for the trees a bit when we assume that score-settling is this comic’s raison d’etre. It’s definitely of a piece with the tone of the work as a whole, but it seems like provocation and confrontationalism are actually, dare I say it, getting the job done here as intended, and that even if you think Graham’s portrayal of the ugly side of this romance is complete one-sided bullshit, it still raises a very important question, namely : who gets their “Me Too Moment,” and who gets written off as a crazy, vengeful ex with an axe to grind?

If you’re uncomfortable with that query, then let’s double down by asking : who is it that makes this distinction between “legit abuse” and “sour grapes”? What criteria go into it? How is this consensus decision arrived at? And hey, while we’re at it — once “everyone” has agreed on something, what if they’re wrong?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, and it’s beyond the purview of this review to even tackle them in any appreciable way, but let’s face it — any comic that can get a reader to start considering them is doing something powerful and important. I wish people weren’t getting hurt along the way, no doubt about it — but equally, if the things in This Never Happened did, in fact, happen, then I wish Graham hadn’t gotten hurt so badly that making this comic seemed like the only method for addressing her pain. Which brings up another point, that being —

Is it? Would some other outlet be healthier? In issue one she has an entirely unproductive session with a therapist who turns out to be a figment of her imagination, and from that point on the idea that there’s no way out from any of this hangs over everything in true Sword of Damocles fashion. Graham’s art style has evolved to fit the overall tone of the work — thicker lines, darker shading, depressive body language, exaggerated “high” and “low” facial expressions depending on which manic state her ostensible “protagonist” is in — even visually, then, the idea that the shadows have arrived and are here to stay seems nearly inescapable. There’s a lot of “gallows humor” in both installments of the series, it’s true, but it’s not like it alleviates the proceedings in the least, it just paints the tragic absurdity of it all in stark relief. I’ve been getting a lot of laughs out of this comic, I admit — Graham has always been, and remains, a very funny cartoonist — but I feel suitably guilty pretty quickly after every chuckle, and I strongly suspect that may be the point. Yet I don’t know if that means this is a legitimately therapeutic exercise, or if I just need to see a therapist myself. Maybe both?

Still, when I look at this work in its admittedly partial totality (yeah, I know, that makes no fucking sense), I think I may see a bit of hope even if Graham herself doesn’t : after all, when you let go — when you completely untether yourself from what you think readers want, from what you damn well know your friends want, and yes, even from what you can pretty well figure critics will judge you on, you’re completely free. When you arrive at rock bottom, there really is nowhere to go but up. This Never Happened is doing damage, perhaps to its own author most of all, but its raw emotional honesty (we’ll leave its factual honesty as a matter for each reader to decide for themselves), stark self-awareness, and absolute lack of anything resembling pretense marks it as being something as utterly unique as it is problematic — a no-holds-barred piece of reportage from the very epicenter of a downward spiral as it’s happening. Alex Graham may owe some apologies after it’s over — and it’s possible some may be owed to her, as well —- but this bears all the hallmarks of a necessary act of creation, and letting the chips fall where they may and cleaning things up after the dust settles come part and parcel with such things.

Next up : let’s all try being kind to each other for a change. And to ourselves.

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This Never Happened numbers one and two are tough items to come by so far, but I think Austin English will have them up for sale on his Domino Books distro site soon, so keep an eye out for it at http://dominobooks.org/

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 ongoing work, so please give it a look at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse