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!

Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Single Issues

With the advent (ha! Get it?) of December, the time has come, once again, for our annual look back at some of the finest comics the year had to offer. We’ll be skipping the usual offerings for the next week or two around here, including the Weekly Reading Round-Up column, since re-reading is your humble emcee’s top priority for the next little while. A run-down, then, of the six different categories I’ve broken things down into is in order, and please keep in mind that I’m deliberately eschewing calling any of these lists a “best-of” simply because I haven’t read everything that’s out there — and who could? Think of these, then, as lists of the ten best entries in each category that I’ve read. Or my own personal favorites. Or something. Anyway, “brackets” are as follows:

Top Ten Single Issues – Pretty self-explanatory, I should think : this list focuses on individual comic books and minis, either stand-alones or part of an ongoing series.

Top Ten Comics Series – This list is designed to spotlight comics that are produced on some sort of production schedule and honors those of consistently high quality. Open-ended, ongoing series and finite mini-series both are eligible, the only qualification is that each series has to have released at least three issues over the course of the past year, since if they’ve only put out two, either one of them would represent 50% of said comic’s total “output” and should, by rights, probably land in the “Top 10 Single Issues” category.

Top Ten Contemporary Collections – This list will focus on collected editions of material previously released either as single issues or in anthologies, etc. English-language translations of Eurocomics, Manga, and the like are also eligible in this category. I have a fairly generous definition of “contemporary,” and have set an admittedly quite arbitrary “cut-off date” of the year 2000, since anything that presents work from the previous century will fall into the category of —

Top Ten Vintage Collections – Same rules as above, just for pre-2000 stuff.

Top Ten Special Mentions – This is a new one I’ve never done before and is somewhat amorphous by definition, so by way of explanation I’ll just say it’s a list designed to highlight my favorite comics-adjacent releases of the year : work that’s done by cartoonists but doesn’t fit the traditional sequential-art format, or else publications that are about comics, but aren’t actually comics themselves.

Top Ten Graphic Novels – Last but certainly not least, this category has fairly strict limitations : every work in it is one which was designed from the outset to be presented in the “graphic novel” format, and cannot have been serialized anywhere else, either in print or online, since those sorts of things are already covered by the “Top Ten Contemporary Collections” designation. These are long-form, wholly original works only.

Are we good? I think we’re good. So let’s jump right in with the Top Ten Single Issues list —

10. Goiter #3 By Josh Pettinger (Self-Published) – The strongest comic yet from one of the most promising “emerging” cartoonists out there, I’m glad to see Pettinger moving away from his Clowes/Ware roots and find an authentic perspective all his own with this superb story about a young woman in love with — a chronologically-displaced floating head? Moving, smart, authentic, and deeply emotive work.

9. Rookie Moves By November Garcia (Self-Published) – Probably my favorite autobio cartoonist working today is at her best in this fun and funny (not to mention endlessly charming) mini focused on her transition from star-struck fan girl to “professional” comic artist — who’s still a star-struck fan girl. One of the most earnest and refreshingly un-pretentious reads of the year.

8. Rust Belt #4 By Sean Knickerbocker (Self-Published) – We’ve heard a lot this year about comics that capture the current MAGA-poisoned “cultural moment,” but for my money none succeeded so well as the fourth issue of Knickerbocker’s ongoing “solo anthology” series, as he casts his increasingly-sharp observational eye on the dual personalities of a guy who’s an average enough husband at home, and a rising right-wing social media “star” in his spare time. You know the people in this comic — and while that’s a damn depressing thing to consider, it makes for utterly compelling reading.

7. By Monday I’ll be Floating In The Hudson With The Other Garbage By Laura Lannes (2dcloud) – The most exemplary collection of diary comics I had the pleasure to read in 2018, Lannes’ subtle and self-deprecating tone and smooth, fundamentally inventive cartooning chart the doomed trajectory of a Tinder “romance” in both real-time and a gorgeous, over-sized format. Remarkably restrained for something so personal, this one sticks in your mind long after     closing it.

6. From Crust Till Dawn By Sarah Romano Diehl (Self-Published) – The second chapter in Diehl’s ongoing memoir of her time as a pizza parlor employee unfolds with a dreamlike quality and ease that brings out the character, rather than the nuts-and-bolts specifics, of each instance it portrays — the end result being a joyously unique reading experience quite unlike anything else.

5. Cosmic BE-ING #6 By Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham enters her post-Angloid era with this awesomely bizarre and entirely singular look at the lives of the residents of her “Clown Castle” in the sky who will creep you out and crack you up in equal measure as they point out the absurdities of wage labor, group living, and other everyday taken-as-given situations large and small. The most assured effort yet from one of the most unique talents in cartooning today.

4. Tongues #2 By Anders Nilsen (Self-Published) – The most ambitious (thematically and visually) ongoing narrative in comics ups the mystery even as things come into view more clearly in its various and for-now-disparate plotlines. Gorgeously illustrated and colored, viscerally written, this is a true masterpiece-in-the-making that demands and rewards rigorous re-reading and examination.

3. Perfect Discipline And Unbending Loyalty By Tommi Parrish (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – In the space of just a couple of short years, Parrish has assumed comics’ mantle as the most astute chronicler of the emotional landscape of human interpersonal relations, and in this sumptuously-presented work they disarm, dissect, and ultimately empower their characters as they navigate generational differences with the same delicately understated honesty as they bring to their intuitive mapping of physical, sexual, and even mental intimacy between couples. Staggering, heartfelt, supremely confident work.

2. Frontier #17, Mother’s Walk By Lauren Weinstein (Youth In Decline) – Weinstein’s love letter to her newborn child is a testament to the power of motherhood and cartooning both as it traverses the eternal moment just before a new life enters this world in an elliptical fashion that encapsulates past, present, and future in an ever-present “now” that circles back in on itself and never ends — as is most certainly true of this comic itself, which breaks every pre-conceived notion still remaining as to what the medium is capable of. There’s been a lot of “hype” around this book recently — including from yours truly — but rest assured : none of it captures the full magnificence of all it contains, of all it is.

1. Now #4, Edited By Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics) – The most significant ongoing anthology in well over a decade, Reynolds puts it all together in this issue (with plenty of help from cartoonists like Roman Muradov, Julian Glander, Nathan Cowdry, Matthias Lehmann, Walt Holcombe, Tommi Parrish, and Brian Blomerth, among others), more than living up to the “mission statement” in his book’s title, but going one step further in the process — this isn’t just where comics are at now, it also shows where they’re going in the future. The best, most varied, most effectively curated (I term I try not to use at all, but employ here with absolute precision) assemblage of sequential art you’re going to come across in this year and probably just about any other, this is a shot across the bow, a challenge for everyone to “raise the bar” and make comics that are as confidently-realized as those on offer here.

Whew! Okay! That’s quite the run-down! And we’re just getting started! 2018 really has been an amazing year for comics, and narrowing down each of these lists to just ten “winners” has been a very difficult task indeed. I feel bad about some of the books that didn’t “make the cut,” but I’m very confident in everything I settled on, as well as the specific places they earned. I hope you agree with my selections, sure, but more than that — I hope you’ve found some great new comics to add to your “must-buy” list!

Next up — Top Ten Ongoing Series! I’m aiming to have that list up tomorrow!

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 09/16/2018 – 09/22/2018, “Now” #4 And New Minis From Brian Canini

From the best anthology comic in a decade to the best ongoing mini, this week had plenty to offer yours truly. It’s late as I write this, I’m tired, but I’m also enthused to talk comics, so let’s do just that —

I’m not sure what it is about fourth issues of anthologies, but in much the same way that Kramers Ergot #4 threw down the gauntlet and shouted “this is where comics are now, and this is where comics are going — dare you to stop us!” way back in the halcyon days of 2008, editor Eric Reynolds has assembled the very best of the best of veteran and emerging contemporary cartoonists to make much the same declaration here in 2018 with Now #4, which marks not only the (temporary?) pinnacle of this Fantagraphics series to date, but also something of a high-water mark for the anthology format in general. Anyone who wants to keep up is going to have their work cut out for them, as there’s not a false note on offer here, and the occasional “clunkers” that made their way into the first three issues are literally nowhere to be found. Yes, that’s really me saying that, while some strips in this collection are no doubt more successful than others in terms of achieving their aims, literally every single one of them is at the very least good, and several are bona fide revelations. The pages between Trenton Doyle Hancock’s visceral gut-punch of a cover and Nick Thorburn’s all-too-true back cover are loaded with creativity that ranges from the sublime to the explosive, and if you’re looking for a temperature-gauge of the overall health and vitality of the medium in general, this is evidence that, for all the hand-wringing going on in (and about) comics these days, things have arguably never been better for those willing to travel off the beaten path.

I don’t usually do this, but — “A+” marks  go to Brian Blomerth’s staggeringly inventive visual tour-de-force “Pray For Pianoland,” Julian Glander’s wistful and breathtakingly-realized “Skybaby,” Diego Agrimbau and Lucas Varela’s multi-layered metafictional mind-fuck “The Absolute Truth,” Nathan Cowdry’s two entries, the melancholic “I Thought Of You All The Way Down” and the uniquely acerbic “Kewpie,” Theo Ellsworth’s nightmarish-yet-innocent (and vice-versa) “What Are You Doing?,” Roman Muradov’s gorgeous and devilishly clever “Quarters,” and Tommi Parrish’s searingly understated and achingly human untitled relationship autopsy ; solid “A” grades are awarded Cynthia Alfonso’s minimalist and deeply resonant “From Noise To White,” Walt Holcombe’s refreshingly unpretentious autobiographical paean to the joys of meditation, “I Am Bananas,” Matthias Lehmann’s richly-delineated and thematically complex “The Cave,” Rebecca W. Kirby’s sumptuous and soul-baring “Waves,” and David Alvarado’s crisp, embarrassingly true-to-life “Afterschool Special,” the only “throwback”-style strip in the bunch; and pulling up what passes for the “rear” with “B” grades are John Ohannesian’s lavishly-rendered short humor strip, “30,000 Years Ago,” Maria Medem’s block-color feast of paranoia and apprehension, “Maimed Gaze,” and the second installment of J.C. Menu’s cartoon dream diary, “S.O.S. Suitcases,” which is such a leaps-and-bounds improvement over the one presented “way” back in issue number one that I almost feel like giving him extra points just for surpassing expectations.

Throw in a near-suicidally-generous cover price of $9.99 for 128 pages and what you’ve got here is very probably the “must-buy” comic of the year — or even of the last several. Now has hit a stride few anthologies ever manage in a remarkably short period of time, and is absolutely brimming over with vitality at this point. We are so damn lucky to have this series, and now that Reynolds has his feet firmly under him and has managed to fully differentiate his current project from his earlier (and justly legendary) MOME, all I can say is — watch out. We appear to be in the presence of one of the all-time greats here.

Brian Canini’s Plastic People #6 continues the meticulous world-building that is the backbone of what I’ve made no secret is my favorite ongoing mini. Yeah, this issue is pure “side-step” that doesn’t advance the plot in any appreciable way, focusing as it does on a double-date between our two “surgical police” protagonists and their significant others, but it’s a fun exit off the main narrative’s thoroughfare that adds depth, nuance, and even a little complexity both to the personal lives of the people we’re getting to know, and to the nightmarishly phony future L.A. that they inhabit. You could probably skip this issue and get away with it in terms of keeping up, but at just $1.99 there’s really no reason to do that.

By contrast, Plastic People #7 is easily the weakest chapter in the ongoing saga to date, although we do return to propelling the murder-mystery plot forward in this one and Canini’s cartooning is, as ever, strong, clean, and economical in its precision. Still, when you see “future” residents of Tinseltown still, like, saying “like” all the, like, time — and, even more embarrassingly, still using terms like “amazeballs” — something tells me that not enough thought has gone into extrapolating some type of unique dialect that will surely develop over time. I’m not saying everything’s gotta be as intricately-woven as the visionary sci-fi linguistics that Alan Moore developed for The Ballad Of Halo Jones or Crossed + One Hundred, but seriously — slang terms come and go, and some of the ones we see here are already pretty well on the way out.

Even more annoying : the entire narrative trajectory of this issue is rather cynically constructed in service of a cheap punchline on the last page that you’ll see coming a mile away. It’s not like Canini to be this painfully obvious, and it’s rather disappointing to see, but let’s give him his due — seven issues in with only one misstep is a pretty good ratio, and I see no reason to think this one isn’t an unfortunate aberration that he’ll quickly brush aside. This is still a great series, that just happens to have one pretty damn lousy issue. No reason to jump ship at all, and hey, at least this one is still just two bucks, as well.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again : the law of averages dictates that Canini’s Blirps probably should have been a “one-and-done” deal, but somehow he keeps milking way more fun out of this fairly simple premise than I ever would have thought possible. More four-panel “gag” strips featuring neurotic and obsessive robot monsters are what you get here, and every one of them is damn funny and too charming for its own good. So, ya know, don’t even listen to me anymore, Brian — keep making these as long as you feel like, because they keep on hitting all the right notes. $1.99 for a full-color mini is also a pretty nice buy in today’s comics economy.

And with that, we come to the end of another Round-Up column. Next week’s selections remain entirely up in the air, as I’ve received some very nice-looking stuff in the mail recently, but won’t have much time to start reading any of it until tomorrow evening. What I particularly like, or particularly dislike, we’ll talk about here in seven short days, if that’s cool with you — or even if it’s not. in the meantime —

Now #4 will be hitting your LCS shelves on Wednesday and is, as already stated, the very definition of an essential purchase, while Brain Canini’s minis are, as always,  available via his Drunken Cat Comics imprint, which has a Storenvy site at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/

 

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.

“Now” We’re Talking

As any long-time reader of purportedly “alternative” and/or “indie” comics can tell you, one of the defining traits of the medium in every decade is a kind of “state of the art form” manifesto that’s not so much written as it is mapped out by the varying-to-disparate editorial sensibilities of, and even a kind of de facto creative tension that arises between, two contrasting and contemporary anthologies. As that same long-time reader (in this case, me) can tell you, though, the one-time gulf that separated said pair of anthos (whatever they may be) has been narrowing over time — first to a gap, then to a short hop, and now, perhaps, to something that looks very much like a convergence.

In the 1980s, for instance, despite the occasional cartoonist who could safely appear in both, the “high art” ethos (or, if you’re so inclined, pretensions) of Raw were pretty far removed from the punk-infused, DIY, “low-brow” populism of Weirdo, which not only wasn’t afraid to play around in the gutter, but seemed downright at home there — but as their respective spots were assumed by Drawn And Quarterly and Zero Zero in the ’90s, the goal posts of each shifted closer to the other. Closer still were Kramers Ergot and MOME in the so-called “aughts.” But ever since MOME closed up shop in 2011, Kramers has pretty much had the entire playing field to itself.

Not that other anthologies haven’t turned up here and there, mind you — many of them quite good. But these tended to be one-off affairs, often constructed around an editorially-dictated central theme or conceit, rather than, to invoke a sickeningly over-used term, curated publications whose nominal-to-the-point-of-being-oblique themes have to be teased out by readers by dint of the “running order” of strip presentation, a la Kramers — that is, until now. More specifically, until Now.

Former MOME editor Eric Reynolds has decided to “get back in the game,” so to speak, with a new thrice-yearly anthology that even comes complete with a (poorly-worded, but whatever) “mission statement” of sorts. To quote directly from Reynolds’ introduction : “I want to leverage Fantagraphics’ stature in the marketplace to put out an affordable and ongoing print anthology that showcases as broad a range of quality comic art as possible – and to put it under as many eyes as possible. I want to make an anthology that looks inviting to a casual comics reader but challenges them as they dig deeper. I want to encourage a revival of the short story in the age of long form graphic novels. I want to showcase as diverse a collection of cartoonists and comics as possible, one that provides a full spectrum of what the medium has to offer” — all noble goals, surely, even if the first and the last are, ya know, basically the same thing. Methinks the editor may need — an editor?

Pedantic bullshit aside, though, who am I to argue with Reynolds’ logic? And his opening night gala has a heck of a guest list : Rebecca Morgan provides the eye-catching (to say the least) cover, with three-panel back cover strip by Nick Thorburn; Sara Corbett, Gabrielle Bell, and Kramers‘ own Sammy Harkham contribute one-page strips (all quite strong); Tobias Schalken, Dash Shaw, Tommi Parrish, Kaela Graham, Daria Tessler, Conxita Hererro, and the team of cartoonist Malachi Ward and co-writer Matt Sheean chime in with medium-length strips; and Eleanor Davis, J.C. Menu, Noah Van Sciver, and Antoine Cosse serve up what we’ll call, for lack of a better term (that I can think of at the moment, at any rate) “feature-length” strips. A nice mix of veteran and emerging talent, indeed.

If pressed to pick one “standout work,” I’d probably have to go with Davis’ “Hurt Or Fuck,” a deceptively-simple interpretive piece that expertly uses the gaps in its own internal logic to heighten its emotional resonance and that, in true Davis fashion, doesn’t pack a punch so much as it leaves an invisible mark with a bittersweet (but mostly bitter) sting that lingers for days, but Van Sciver’s “Wall Of Shame” is a superb and eminently relatable autobio story not to be missed, Shaw’s “Scorpio” is an entirely unsubtle but nonetheless highly effective juxtaposition of a difficult childbirth with a just-as-difficult election night 2016 result (hey, a 128-page anthology can’t be expected to — fuck, in my view shouldn’t — avoid at least a little bit of Trump-bashing somewhere along the way), Graham’s “Pretend We’re Orphans” is a lavishly-illustrated “dark fairy tale” that effortlessly recalls memories of being scared in just the right way before bedtime, and Ward and Sheean’s “Widening Horizon” posits an alternate trajectory — extrapolated from a handful of genuinely historical roads not taken — of international space travel that both forces and invites, in equal measure, one to consider Utopian alternatives to any number of societal ills if only, ya know, shit had worked out differently (as in better) in the past.  Any of these strips are worth the price of admission (something we’ll get to momentarily) alone, but to have them all between the same two covers is more than enough to cement Now #1’s place as one of the very best comics of the year.

Are there some misfires to be found here, though? Of course, but even there nobody fails for lack of trying : Hererro’s “Here I Am” is a re-contextualized version of an earlier Bell strip that’s gorgeously drawn, but fails to bring forth anything new from its “source material,” nor to add much by way of a distinctive personality it can call its own; Schalken’s wordless “21 Positions/The Final Frontier” misses its chance to coalesce at the last moment even though it’s right there for the taking (although maybe that’s the whole point and I’m just stupid); Cosse’s “Statue” tries to pack a bit too much “food for thought” into what is a sprawling, languidly-paced visual narrative; Menu’s “S.O.S. Suitcases” has enough going for it on its own merits that its author is just plain wasting his time by leaning on Lloyd Dangle and Gary Panter “influence crutches”; Tessler’s “Songs In The Key Of Grief” take us on an incredible post- “television age” psychedelic journey but fails to clue us in on why we should want to go along for the ride; Parrish’s untitled strip offers a fascinating and informative look at changing (indeed, evolving) gender identity mores and their cause-and-effect relationship with sexual orientation but is, alas, just a touch too earnest and “lecture hall”-ish for its own good. Not a “bad” offering in the lot, by any means, but all examples of strips that set out to do something they don’t quite manage to achieve. “Fascinating but flawed,” I think, is the exact phrase I’m looking for.

It’s in analyzing the whole, though, that things get really interesting : it’s clear that Reynolds has already succeeded, just one issue into things, in doing precisely what he wanted to with Now — there’s a lot of great material to be found here, a lot of “almost great” material, and no real “clunkers” in the bunch. Furthermore, it’s presented nicely (but not too nicely) and at a very reasonable price ($9.99 for 128 pages? Where are you gonna do better than that?) — and for a final flourish, it even manages to incorporate its economic populism into its overall aesthetic, its editorial being short and to the point, its table of contents being printed on the back cover, and its cover stock being of more or less the “standard comic book” variety. The paper’s slick but not anything you wouldn’t find in an Image or Dark Horse comic; its dimensions are no taller — and only slightly wider — than, say, a Marvel or DC “floppy” single issue; it’s squarebound, but just a simple glued binding — no doubt, this is “art comics” packaged for the mass market, and for mass consumption.

And that fact, more than anything, is what convinces me that the “dueling anthologies” paradigm is back — only this time they’re not even “dueling” at all. Honestly, any and all of the strips in Now #1 would feel every bit as “at home” in the next volume of Kramers Ergot. The same aesthetic impulses seem to be driving both publications, and besides, ever-emerging delivery platforms have blown open comics as widely as they have music and film by this point. The old divisions, already diminishing, are gone altogether now and quality work will, one way or another, find its way to an audience.  The only question is whether it will be via a computer screen, a reasonably-priced printed periodical, or a fancy, deluxe, over-sized book complete with numerous bells and whistles. There’s a place for all of it. There’s a market for all of it. Hell, for hungry readers and starving cartoonists alike, there’s definitely a need for all of it.

In that sense, then, what Reynolds and Fantagraphics (who, let’s not forget, also publishes Kramers these days) are doing here is filling in an essential gap, and serving an under-served segment of the comics community. Reading through this book made me realize just how much I’d missed having a top-quality anthology available on a consistent basis at a price that didn’t break the bank. I wish it had happened sooner, absolutely — but I’m glad it’s happening Now.