Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

And so we come to the most unusual of our year-end “Top 10” lists, this one looking at my ten favorite “special mentions” of 2018, and I suppose that some explanation is in order : simply put, a lot of great publications that came out of the comics world this year were, for lack of a better term (at least a better term than I can think of, you may fare better) “comics-adjacent,” in that they were by  cartoonists, but took the form of illustrated short stories, collections of drawings, etc. Also included in this category are publications about comics — ‘zines, scholarly works, and the like. Now then, with those ground rules in place —

10. Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South By Jeff Zenick (Self-Published) – One of the better pure illustrators working today, and one whose work consistently flies under the radar, Zenick’s collection of drawings based on mug shots found online of folks run afoul of the law below the Mason-Dixon line is his most conceptually “tight” offering to date, and captures the essential character of the desperation that leads to/ends in criminal activity far better than “mere” photographs ever could. A sobering, straight-forward look at the underbelly of society that most would rather pretend doesn’t exist.

9. Journal Of Smack (2018) By Andrea Lukic (Self-Published) – Lukic’s semi-regular journals are always fascinating, but her latest is like a “found object” from another time, place, and possibly even dimension, ostensibly telling an illustrated vampire story that circles back in on itself frequently — but what’s really going on here is something much deeper and more profound : preconceptions of what words and pictures can and even should do in juxtaposition are challenged head-on, shaken up, and re-arranged in new, unique, and even unsettling ways that are hard to explain, but undeniably powerful and instantly memorable.

8. Folrath #2 By Zak Sally (Self-Published) – The second installment in Sally’s ongoing prose memoir of his early-’90s “punk years” is no mere exercise in nostalgia for its own sake, but rather a gripping and evocative attempt to reconcile what one’s part even means — and how it never really leaves us, even when we think we’ve left it behind. The publication format here is also innovative and aesthetically pleasing, using riso printing and an “old-school” typeface to give the proceedings a wistful look that amplifies the tone of the writing.

7. But Is It — Comic Aht? Edited By Austin English (Domino Books) – Oh, hell yes ! The newsprint comics ‘zine had been in desperate need of a comeback for some time, and English is just the guy to resuscitate it. A thorough and comprehensive interview with the great Megan Kelso and an examination of the Mexican comics underground by Ines Estrada are the standout features to this critic, but the other reviews and articles are all tops, too. A true and obvious labor of love that you’re guaranteed, in turn, to love yourself.

6. Dog Nurse By Margot Ferrick (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of those rare “total packages” that has it all in terms of both form and content, Ferrick’s mysteriously heartwarming tale of a precocious but alienated child and her hired caretaker’s attempts to reach an understanding with her is lavishly illustrated, but equally lavishly presented between fastened hard covers on rich, French-fold pages. Well and truly stunning in every perspective.

5. Nocturne By Tara Booth (2dcloud) – Perhaps the closest thing on this list to a traditional “comics” narrative, Booth’s undeniably charming tale of a consequential evening in the life of a dominatrix, told by means of sequentially-arranged gouache paintings, is incredibly fluid, to be sure, but also far more conceptually dense than it may appear at first glance, incorporating themes of sexual identity, communal living, complex (and perhaps unhealthy) relationships with food, and body-image acceptance into a non-alienating, visually literate, wordless narrative. Some books leave a mark — this one casts a spell.

4. Accursed By Daria Tessler (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of the most gorgeous riso publications ever made, Tessler’s mind-bending visual interpretations of accompanying ancient Greek and Roman curses is a rich exploration of the timelessness of the urge for revenge rendered in a gorgeous and vibrant color palette that literally makes the already-“trippy” images achieve a kind of near-sentience as they draw you into a world unlike any other ever depicted. The die-cut cover with embossed ink and fold-out center spread will blow your mind if the contents haven’t already.

3. John, Dear By Laura Lannes (Retrofit/Big Planet) – A harrowing tale of emotional and psychological abuse manifesting itself outwardly in the form of physical deformation and mutation, Lannes has taken “body horror” to a whole new level by infusing it with social relevance — and her richly-black graphite renderings will not only take your breath away, but literally suck it right out of your body. I defy you to read this and not feel absolutely hollowed out afterwards.

2. The Woman Minotaur By Sara L. Jackson (Self-Published) – Sumptuous, beautiful, and horrifying all at once, Jackson’s painted short story revolving around themes of parental abandonment and alienation is as emotionally and psychologically charged as it is visually ambitious. A supremely self-assured work that establishes its own rules with fearlessness, integrity, and ingenuity, this is an entirely new form of artist-to-audience communication that goes right for the heart and twists it mercilessly.

1. Why Art? By Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics) – Asking, and answering, its titular question by means more allegorical than expository, Davis’ deceptively “simple” illustrations and sparse, economic narrative shave off anything and everything superfluous and consequently “mainline” her story directly into readers’ metaphorical veins with an immediacy so nonchalantly assumed that its sheer power is immediately and automatically taken as a given.  A work of singular and undeniable genius — and that’s a word you will only catch me using when it’s not only warranted, but frankly inescapable. Davis makes her strongest argument yet for being the cartoonist laureate of our times.

So there you have it — ten great comics that weren’t exactly comics. Next up is our final list of the year, focusing on original graphic novels. That goes up tomorrow night, and may surprise you just as much for what isn’t included on it as what is. How’s that for a teaser?

Portraits In Everyday Hopelessness : “Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South”

It’s hot down south.

Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, they tell me. Hot enough to melt the ice pack wrapped around little Jimmy Bob’s broken shoulder. Hot enough to send those armadillos scurrying across the blacktop really fast. Hot enough to make you do something crazy.

Veteran cartoonist Jeff Zenick, who’s made a habit of turning up in interesting places doing very interesting things when you least expect it, is probably the perfect person to capture the essence of what makes those run afoul of the law in Dixie do what they do simply because his astute observational skills not only capture every detail of a person’s face, but also what informs every line, every wrinkle, every cut, every bruise on it — in short, he draws real people that have been through some real shit. There is a tinge, I suppose, of the exotic and forbidden that is automatically attached to those with the sheer “fuck you” temerity to step outside society’s often-arbitrary moral and legal code, those who take it upon themselves to do what they can — and, in many cases, must to survive — simply because the means, motive, and opportunity are there, and yet in Zenick’s new comic/’zine, Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South : Drawings From Online Mugshots, what’s most striking about the collection of scofflaws contained within is how positively normal most of them look. Why, they could be your neighbors. Your friends. Your family.

Which isn’t to say that most of them don’t appear to have had a damn rough night, of course — but you get hauled in by a backwater sheriff’s deputy after you’ve been out on a bender and see how good you look. Zenick sets the tone on page one with a rather bleakly poetic introduction that cuts to the core of this latest project, but from then on it’s strictly six illustrations of chumps down on their luck per page, all of whom ended up in the pokey in places like Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. We keep hearing about this “New South” all the time, but if it exists (and remember, the entire south voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, so that’s a mighty big “if”), the progress it supposedly has brought with it has passed plenty of folks by — and they’re well represented in this collection.

To be sure, we’ve got people locked up on serious charges like domestic assault, stalking, illegal possession of firearms, and other major felonies in here. One guy is in for murder. DUIs are common. But a lot of the “criminals” herein got stuck with bullshit raps : vagrancy, illegally tinted car windows, failure to illuminate license plates. One poor schmuck is simply charged with being a “persistent felony offender,” with no specifics offered. One was arrested for “impersonating a police officer,” which in any just world would earn them a medal for ingenuity. Yet everyone from the accused killer to the harmless hobo seems to have one thing in common : desperation.

It’s a quiet, understated, or even disguised desperation, to be sure, but it’s positively ubiquitous, palpable. It’s hiding behind the nonchalant “nothing I haven’t been through before” tough-guy stare. It’s expressed as bewilderment and confusion on those whose expressions say “how did I end up here when the day started like any other?” It’s buried under veritable layers of chemically-induced haze among those too drunk, high, or both to even know where the hell they are — but it’s always there. It is, in a very real sense, the story behind the story. Behind all these stories.

Which may be a funny thing to say when you consider there is no actual “narrative” on offer here in the traditional sense : no character or characters, plural, that we follow from point A to point B. No conflict, no drama, no plots or subplots. Whatever was going to happen to everyone here already has happened. And whatever that was is written all over their faces. So while I’m pretty resistant, personally, to the idea of mugshots being posted online from a sheer civil liberties perspective — shit, you’re still supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country — when an artist of Zenick’s caliber comes along and finds a way to bring out more humanity in his illustrations than actual photos ever could? I say let the jurors see them, as well.

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Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South is self-published by Jeff Zenick and available for a measly five bucks from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro — which, I confess, is where I poached all the scans for this review from because I couldn’t find any images of the book anywhere else. I don’t know if that’s a crime — even in Texas — but I do know you can, and should, click the following link and order it :http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/troubled-mankind-of-the-modern-south-by-jeff-zenick/