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

 

Laugh ‘Til It Hurts : Tom Van Deusen’s “Expelling My Truth”

It’s no secret that I’ve always considered Tom Van Deusen to be one of the funniest cartoonists working today — but that’s selling him a bit short, I suppose, considering that he’s also one of the most interesting.

Hiding under the modern iteration of fairly classic comic-strip style illustration that he employs is something that’s almost post-postmodern, an exploration of identity and the perception thereof that see-saws back and forth between making Van Deusen look as outrageously asinine as possible in one book (Scorched Earth), gluttonous as hell in another (EatEatEat), and good-natured-bordering-on-bemused in the next (I Wish I Was Joking). All of which leads this critic to ask the questions : Will the real Tom Van Deusen please step up? And does it even matter if he does?

His latest collection from Kilgore Books, Expelling My Truth, seems as though it may come close to answering the first query, but it goes a lot further toward answering the second — and the answer it gives is “no.”

Which isn’t meant as a criticism in the least, mind you — never knowing which Van Deusen you’re going to get  is a big part of the (here’s a term I’m loathe to invoke, but damn if it doesn’t apply) charm of these purportedly “autobiographical” strips, whether we’re talking about a guy with no sense of personal boundaries whatsoever, as in the story where he asks to hold a complete stranger’s baby on the bus before getting off, walking a couple of blocks, and spying on Eddie Vedder’s house (wherein the “rock god” is getting high with a space alien), or one who isn’t above taking easy pot-shots at the pretentiousness of the art world, or one who’s as fundamentally disappointed by his lot as a workaday office drone as anyone in their right mind would be, even (maybe especially) when he’s summoned to the home of his Jeff Bezos-esque boss in order to, unbeknownst to him, talk his son out of a career as a comic book artist. They all entertain, sure — but they’re all cringe-worthy in their own way, as well. So no, it doesn’t matter which Van Deusen we’re getting, at the end of the day they’re all conscripted into service as representations in microcosm of the cartoonist’s least-enviable personality traits.

This is a trickier thing to pull off than it sounds on paper — self-deprecation is easy enough, but to form a one-man circular firing squad in a way that eschews both irony for its’ own sake and the subtle “soft sell” of “I’m making myself look like a bad guy in order to garner sympathetic reactions of the ‘no, you’re not, I promise’ variety” takes some pretty considerable skill indeed.

Not that anyone really doubts Van Deusen’s skills at this point — his classical brush line, Jason Lutes-like usage of blacks, and clean, easy-going figure drawing belie a keen understanding of the medium, and even a fairly healthy measure of respect for its history. Re-inventing the wheel is nowhere on the radar screen, but it certainly doesn’t need to be — knowing what you’re good at and proceeding according to your self-diagnosed strengths is plenty effective, thanks, and goes some way toward lending work of this nature with a disarming quality, imbuing readers with a sense of the known and familiar before going in and shaking things up, perception-wise, on a fundamental level.

Which certainly doesn’t preclude this comic from, again, being a very fun one. But it’s “fun” with a sense of purpose, with a point of view (in fact, several of them), with a cutting edge that makes you feel decidedly uncomfortable as you chuckle out loud. I don’t know if we’re any closer to discerning the “truth” about Tom Van Deusen at the end of this book than we were at the beginning, but I’m not choosy : any of these versions will do in a pinch, and even though they’re all off-putting, they sure won’t put you off the comic itself — anything but. Expelling My Truth is thoroughly enjoyable bullshit that says quite a bit about its author even as it does its level best to conceal who he “really” is.

“Unbelievably realistic” only sounds like an oxymoron. Here’s all the evidence of that you’ll ever need.

******************************************************************************

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 buck a month. You won’t find a better value, and needless to say, 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

 

“Flayed Corpse And Other Stories” : Josh Simmons Sits At The Center of A Brutal, Random, Uncaring Universe — Is That A Bad Thing?

In most fields of entertainment and/or artistic expression (the two only seem mutually exclusive, they needn’t necessarily be), there is usually at least one generally-acknowledged “Master of Horror,” if not several : literature has Stephen King; cinema has John Carpenter remaining out of the one-time Carpenter/Craven/Romero “trinity,” with plenty of others ready and waiting to assume up the mantle;  television has Robert Kirkman (hey, I didn’t say I liked all these folks); mainstream comics still clings to the acclaimed works of “British Invaders” Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Jamie Delano, as well as to the legendary EC and Warren creators. Purportedly “alternative” or “independent” comics, though? Not so much.

Certainly the first wave of underground comix saw plenty of cartoonists who were very much at home delineating the horrific : Greg Irons, Jack Jackson, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson and all produced memorable horror-themed works — heck, even a young Richard Corben cut his teeth in the underground milieu. These days, though, folks pursuing a non-corporate path for their comics careers tend toward the autobiographical, the surreal, the “slice-of-life,” the dramatic, the melodramatic. Horror seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor among the “indie” set.

Which is why Josh Simmons is such a breath of fresh — if fetid and diseased — air. Whether we’re talking about his shorter works collected in books such as The Furry Trap, or long-form graphic novels like Black River, this is a guy who makes his bread and butter holding a brutally scrambled — and just as brutally honest — funhouse mirror up to society and forcing us to acknowledge any number of things we’d much rather ignore, and his latest Fantagraphics-published collection, Flayed Corpse And Other Stories, sees him back on familiar ground and twisting the knife in deeper.

Simmons is often mistakenly lumped in with the “dudebro” crowd of white male cartoonists that think subtracting all meaning from their work automatically makes it “edgy” and gives them license to “up the ante” (Jason Karns, I’m looking at you — and Charles Forsman, I’m looking at you sometimes), but what I think the largely-well-meaning critics who take exception to this (as, usually, they should) miss is that there are ways to make pointlessness a point in and of itself, and that it takes genuine skill to effectively imbue your work with a sense of dread at the realization that the world is going to go on spinning no matter what the hell happens to any of us individually. That’s what Simmons does, and he does it without apology, pity, or a minute’s hand-holding.

His intro strip to this volume, pictured above, subverts the contents of everything that follows for those of us who know what to expect, saves its sardonic punchline if you’re a newbie, but undoubtedly works like a charm (an unlucky one, perhaps, but still) either way and very nearly manages to momentarily redeem the concept of irony until you remember that, oh yeah, most people shouldn’t even try this shit, but Simmons does it well enough to earn a pass. It’s really the first (and titular) strip presented after the table of contents, then, that sets the “legit” tone for the next one-hundred-sixty-some pages, as medical examiners debate how an unfortunate corpse came to be in their “care,” each one-upping the other with increasingly grotesque hypotheses as to cause of death before settling on all of them, and that the victim therefore met his end in a state of extreme agony — an agony that will likely endure forever because, I guess, that’s how metaphysics works. Welcome to a highly personal apocalypse that never ends.

Bizarrely, though, Simmons and his coterie of collaborators — writer/artist Tom Van Deusen, inker Eric Reynolds, artists Patrick Keck, Ben Horak, James Romberger, Pat Moriarty, Eroyn Franklin, Ross Jackson, and Joe Garber (with additional stand-alone art pages by Tara Booth, Anders Nilsen, and Shanna Matuszak) — find the funny side in the midst of this bleakness. The humor on offer is of the unsettling — hell, the gallows — variety, to be sure, but sometimes a shameful laugh in spite of yourself is better than no laugh at all.

In that sense, then, this assemblage of stories — most culled from various anthologies published between the years 2010-2017, although some were self-contained “floppy” single-issue releases — probably owes more to the ethos and aesthetic of the drive-ins and grindhouses of the ’70s than it does to what’s happening in contemporary horror, given that anything can happen at any time and no one is safe. Joe Bob Briggs would probably approve — as do I — but folks who grew up on horror with implicit, if never directly-stated, rules ? The readers who know the “loose” girls die first, the virgins survive until the end, the killer gets up and walks again no matter how violently he’s been dispatched? They might be genuinely surprised by the kind of “no hope for anyone, ever, so don’t fucking kid yourself” existential terror that is Simmons’ stock in trade.

I really don’t want to give the impression that this book has a sense of relentlessness to it, though — and while much of that is down to the aforementioned bleak humor, a lot of it is down to the varying, but uniformly pitch-perfect, art styles on display. Simmons’ own cartooning is plenty strong in its own right — rich and inky blacks juxtaposed with economic, effective, and moody linework that gives off a feel of “what if Chester Brown swapped out his clinical detachment for informed cynicism?” and finds its apex in the collection’s two finest stories (“The Incident At Owl’s Head,” a revisionist take on outsider-wanders-into-an-isolated-community tropes, and “Seaside Home,” a harrowingly straightforward character study of a family facing unavoidable, inescapable natural disaster) — but he shows a real penchant for playing to his artists’ strengths when he sets the pencils and brushes aside himself.

Of the collaborative entries, the strongest is no doubt “Twilight Of The Bat,” the justly-celebrated story that draws the one and only logical conclusion  to the let’s- not-call-him-Batman and let’s-also-not-call-him-Joker relationship (something of a surprise entry given that the original, riso-printed magazine came out in the latter part of 2017 and is still available from its publisher, Cold Cube Press), drawn with suitable post-apocalyptic grit by Patrick Keck, while the best example of two heads being better than one is probably “Daddy,” a stark and particularly unforgiving tale of the “oh my God the killer was already in our home” variety that transcends its telegraphed-from-the-outset trajectory thanks to James Romberger’s violently evocative art that marries old-school EC eeriness with a thoroughly modern sensibility, all awash with rich and vibrant and frankly disturbing colors. It’s gorgeous to look at, yeah, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell.

Still, while the gory and the gross are  present and accounted for here in generous proportion (see especially the Pat Moriarty-illustrated “The Great Shitter”), it is the philosophy underpinning Simmons’ stories that sets them apart and above. Not even the light-hearted (relatively speaking, mind  you) Tom Van Deusen-penned yarn, “Late For The Show,” can completely escape the inexorable vortex pull of inevitability at the core Flayed Corpse And Other Stories. When your number is up, it’s up, Simmons never tires of reminding us — but before it comes up (and I hope, for your sake, that’s not for a good, long while yet), I absolutely urge you to buy this book.

“The Big Me Book” Is All About Tom Van Deusen — Or Is It?

One could advance a pretty strong argument that Tom Van Deusen is the funniest cartoonist in America today — but, as with anyone whose humor hits a bit too close to home, his stuff is certain to offend disparate constituencies.

On the one hand, anyone whose hyper-sensitivity outstrips their common sense to the extent that they take him literally will think he’s a racist, misogynistic, self-absorbed pig of the lowest order — after all, apart from his early-2017 effort, I Wish I Was Joking, wherein he (successfully) experimented with making his “autobiographical” stand-in likable for change, that’s precisely how he’s always portrayed “Tom Van Deusen.”  On the other, though, the minute some “MAGA” fuckhead were to realize that he’s actually aiming a sharply — and deservedly — accusatory finger at the very same mental toxicity he’s ascribing to “himself,” well, they’d probably end up feeling as butt-hurt as the “snowflakes” they’re always both bitching about and, frankly, outdoing in today’s Most Easily Offended sweepstakes. In short, then, if you go into one of Van Deusen’s comics determined to walk away from it feeling pissed off, you’ll find plenty of reason to be.

In his latest collection of short strips, the Kilgore Books-published The Big Me Book, Van Deusen is back in the full-on asshole mode that readers of  his earlier works like Scorched Earth and Eat Eat Eat have come to know and not-exactly-love, only this time out he’s become addicted to social media as the latest outlet for his incessant need for adulation, encounters a magical cat who can grant him three wishes, and finds himself saddled with the curse of having his comic-book “thought bubbles” visible to anyone and everyone. Things don’t go well in any of these scenarios, of course — but they never do in these strips/books, nor are they supposed to. That would sort of defeat the whole point. The damn thing, though, is that noxious as the thoughts and actions of Van Deusen’s two-dimensional doppleganger are (strutting around in a Nazi uniform? Fucking a plastic sex-shop ass in public?), you will laugh. That’s a lead-pipe cinch. As is the fact that you’ll feel borderline-queasy for doing so — which, of course, makes the whole thing all the better.

Filtering individual and/or societal ugliness through a comedic lens is, of course, nothing new, but to do so by making yourself out to be the biggest d-bag of all? That’s where Van Deusen’s work breaks the mold. And probably where he loses some readers. After all, the natural inclination of any human being (okay, any other human being) is to make oneself look, if not great, then at least decent or okay, and if you just can’t let go of that assumption, then you might be inclined to think that Van Deusen is tacitly endorsing “his” detestable mindset rather than ripping it to shreds with a fair amount of gleeful contempt. I’m honestly not sure how anyone can miss the point as there’s nothing even remotely subtle about what our guy Tom is doing, but hey — I’ll leave the absolutism to the jerks he’s so clearly (and hilariously) eviscerating.

The other thing that might throw folks for a loop when it comes to Van Deusen, I suppose, is his drawing style. Seldom is wit this acerbic delivered by means of illustrations so overtly “cartoony,” but again — it’s a contrast that’s both absolutely intentional and supremely effective. Squiggly lines and smiley faces and vaguely Archie-esque figures typically associate themselves in the subconscious with light-hearted wholesome stuff, and that unspoken alliance is hoisted on its petard in Van Deusen’s comics, particularly The Big Me Book, which shows “him” behaving even more abominably than previous books have. If your head spins at the inherent dichotomy between subject matter and “delivery method,” that’s understandable enough at the starting line — but after a few pages, you’ll be convinced that it works.

As does the book in general, truth be told, not least because present-day circumstances have, depressingly, made Van Deusen’s comics more relevant than ever. A few years back, when he was just getting his start, one could be forgiven for thinking that he was punching pretty low, that of course everyone has an appropriate level of disdain for Neo-Nazis, egotistical bastards, irresponsible adult males trapped in a kind of extended adolescence, and woman-hating rat bastards. Then they took over, and we learned that they’d been out there in huge numbers the whole time.

And so Tom Van Deusen has graduated by default. Once not so long ago, his work was, by and large, seen as being simply amusing. Now, thanks to vicious purveyors of “alt-right” snake oil like Mike Cernovich and Stefan Molyneux, thanks to Charlottesville marchers’ chants of “Jews will not replace us,” thanks to Donald motherfucking Trump — and thanks to the millions of people who didn’t take the threat they represented as seriously as Van Deusen did — it’s become both amusing and necessary.

******************************************************************************

The Big Me Book will make you laugh and think more than that five-dollar bill you’ve got in your wallet will, so send it to Kilgore Books in exchange for a copy at http://www.kilgorebooks.com/shop/the-big-me-book-tom-van-deusen